Not that far away at all…..

As if we needed any reminder of how small our world has become…

BBC

Last night we were sitting at home when the news of the latest terrorist attack began streaming across our TV.  This time it was a suicide bomber who detonated a bomb as people were leaving an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England.  The video, the commentary, felt all too familiar.

But why?  Manchester England is far far away, across the ocean.  It was not one of the cities I visited when I was a student.  It wasn’t one of the places we went to when our youth group traveled to Glasgow.  It wasn’t on the itinerary when our family sojourned there one summer.  So it wasn’t a place that should have stirred up emotions.

Except

Manchester was where our daughter and son in law spent a summer.  He was working on a project and she spent her days at a coffee shop writing her first book.  It was where they met some lovely friends who traveled to Charleston for their wedding.  But I doubted very seriously if any of them were at a Monday night pop music concert.

Then I remembered our dear friends Andrew and Julie Henton Pusey.  We had met in Prague during one of my sabbaticals.  He is the pastor of Walworth Road Baptist Church in Hitchen, England.  During our visit we spent a few days with them.  Andrew took us to Cambridge where he had been a student.  He took us punting down the Cam.  Those days are some when we remember fondly!  A few years ago their family came to the States for a summer visit and we had the opportunity to repay the hospitality showing them around, going to the beach, just enjoying each other’s company.

Then came the horrific shootings at Mother Emanuel.  The next candles 5 reflectionmorning I received an email from Andrew, and later that week an announcement that our city would be remembered in their prayers as they lit candles that Sunday.  It was the email that broke my heart.

So this morning I wanted to be like Andrew, to reach out to them to let them know that even though Hitchen is not close to Manchester, I was remembering them in my prayers. 

And then came the reply.  Their daughter, Lizzie, is a student in Manchester.  She was not at the concert, but had friends who were.  They have two more young people from their church in Manchester—one whom not yet been in communication. 

Suddenly Manchester was very very close.  There aren’t that many degrees of separation.

As I texted with Julie, I promised her that she can sleep tonight knowing that we will be praying while she slumbers.  But at some point, I will have to sleep as well.  So if you are in Colorado, in California, Bali, in Australia, in China, or if you just stay up really really late at night—you know who you are—I hope that you will remember my friends who are waiting…..

It is just returning the favor.  It is doing what we do for family!

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Dots and Other Questions

It is one of those annoyingly addictive games that I have downloaded on my iPad. 

Dots

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Simple enough.  All you have to do is connect the dots of the same color together and make them go away.  Connect a group in a square and all the dots of that color go away.

Easy enough!   Even for me!  Maybe that is why I find myself sitting at night while watching TV trying to get a higher score.

See that is the goal—to get a higher score.  It isn’t to make sure they all line up, that the yellow dots are all gone.  The goal is to get the highest score possible. 

It is important to remember that. 

But it raises an important question.  What is the goal of what you are doing?

The other morning I listened to Scott Simon on Weekend Edition.  He was talking with Joe Nocera about an incident that happened recently at American Airlines.  It seemed that the pilots and flight attendants were given a small raise, because after all, the airline is making a profit.  But Wall Street rebelled!  The price of the stock fell because the goal is to “maximize shareholder value.”  And you thought it was to get you from point A to point B safely and efficiently! 

The conversation was enlightening.  All of us who have a particular stock, or even a mutual fund that has invested in the company, want to stock to rise.  I do want to retire someday!  But is that the ultimate goal?  What about the workers?  What about the passengers?  (I think about this every time I try and wedge myself into the shrinking seats and get my small cup of coke to go with my peanuts.)  What about the communities that once relied on contributions from the company to support the symphony, the hospital, the Boy Scouts?

What is the bottom line?  What is the goal?

What is the goal for church?

I thought about that because I was heading to church listening to the show.  We were going out in the community for a day of service.  The next morning we would have worship.  We would pass the offering plates.  We would hope that people left with a deeper spirituality, a closer relationship with God.  We hoped someone would join.

But what is the goal? 

How do our “shareholders” want, expect? 

More people in the seats?

More offering in the plates?

More people doing good stuff?

More people “dedicating their lives to full-time Christian service?

More people walking the aisles?

What is the goal?  For the congregation?  For the minister?

It is a hard question to answer, but perhaps one with which we all need to wrestle.  It really is more than a night-time diversion.  It may be the most important thing we do!

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A Good Friday Reading

The people who heard me preach during Lent know that as a part of my Lenten discipline not only did I give up french fries, but I took on the challenge of participating in the Cooper River Bridge Run.  I am not a runner, nor do I play one on TV!  This was a major endeavor and one that the congregation seemed to enjoy.

There was another part that didn’t get near the publicity.  Each morning I added a reading to my morning routine from the wonderful little book Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter.  It has been a wonderful addition to my day, often giving me something to ponder, something to store away, something that I wish I had said.

breadandwineIn the later category was a wonderful essay by Morton Kelsey entitled The Cross and the Cellar.  I am not preaching on Good Friday, but if I were, I think I might just “borrow” these words.  Something for us all to consider on this Good Friday.

Let us look at some of the people who brought Jesus of Nazareth to crucifixion.  They were not monsters, but ordinary men and women like you and me. 

Pilate was a coward who cared more about his comfortable position than he did about justice.  Whenever you and I are willing to sacrifice someone else for our own benefit, whenever we don’t have the courage to stand up for what we see is right, we step into the same course that Pilate took.

Caiaphas was a devout and sincerely religious man.  But his essential flaw was that he thought he had the whole truth.  He thought he had to protect God from this man.  Those who put their creeds above mercy and kindness and love, walk in his steps even today.

Judas wanted Jesus to call upon heavenly powers, take control of the situation, and throw the Romans out of Palestine.  When he failed to do this, Judas no longer wanted anything to do with him.  Judas’ fault was that he couldn’t wait.  When we can’t wait and want to push things through, when we think we can accomplish a noble end by human means, we are just like Judas.

These were the things that crucified Jesus on Friday in Passover week A.D. 29.  They were not wild viciousness or sadistic brutality or naked hate, but the civilized vices of cowardice, bigotry, impatience, timidity, falsehood, indifference – vices all of us share, the very vices which crucify human beings today.

This destructiveness within us can seldom be transformed until we squarely face it in ourselves.  This confrontation often leads us to the pit.  The empty cross is planted there to remind us that suffering is real but not the end, that victory is possible if we strive on.

I so find myself in each of these individuals, which is why I really need to find myself at the foot of the cross to remember.

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Being Community in a Divisive World

This past weekend I had the privilege of being with the good people at Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte, where my dear friends Russ and Amy Dean are co-pastors.  Being on sabbatical, and not preaching for 2 months, this was a good reminder of what it is like to preach.  Here is the manuscript I took into the pulpit.  Hopefully it is close to what I said!

 

Being Community in a Divisive World
I Corinthians 3:1-9

Dr. Don Flowers, Jr.
Park Road Baptist Church, Charlotte, NC
February 12, 2017

It is an honor for me to be with you this morning.  Park Road is a congregation that has long been an example to many of us of what a church can, and should be like.  Your willingness to be church today, to experiment, to do things differently, to try and sometime fail, says a lot about who you are and the God you serve.  It is faithfulness not necessarily success that we are called to.  Thank you for being you!

And it is always wonderful being with your pastors.  Russ and Amy have been friends for longer than any of us care to remember.  From days as youth ministers when Amy came to the aid of our youth group after one of our girls was run over by a police car coming to assist another girl who had broken her arm…to last week watching Russ work diligently as most of our Preacher Camp group gathered in the frigid cold of Maryland!  There is a reason God loved me enough to let me live in the South.  Your pastors are friends, examples, mentors, pastors to me.  Sharing the pulpit where they speak week after week is a privilege and a bit intimidating!

Thank you.  And know that if you are ever in Charleston, Conde Nast top city in America to visit, (that’s our Chamber of Commerce ad that we are required to give anytime we leave the city limits) I do hope that along with the beaches and the plantations and the market and the incredible restaurants, you will come and visit us at Providence.  We would be honored to have you worship with us.

During these days of Epiphany you have been exploring the theme, (Re)Defining Community.  We return again to a congregation that was in the midst of that for the first time, in the first century, the church at Corinth.  Our text this morning is from chapter 3.

Will you hear these words of our Lord.

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

On a sunny spring day go to a graduation ceremony at any seminary or divinity school in the country.  Go up to any graduate and in between the pictures and the hugs and the well wishes, ask them what they expect to discover in the church they are heading to.  Their answers would be not unlike the answers you would get from the people in your congregation on any given Sunday morning if they were asked to describe the church of their dreams.

“A church where everyone loves each other.”
“A church where everyone is welcomed.”
“A church where the needs of individuals are met.”
“A church where people come to know the depth of life.”
“A church where worship is moving and the preaching is great.”
“A church where people meet Jesus.”
“A church where the bills are paid!”  (There is always one realist in the mix!)

But soon after arriving most of these young ministers will be hit in the face with the reality of church.  It is not all sweetness and harmony.  There are conflicts in paradise.  And the causes…

“The preschool has used our glue again!”
“Who thought it would be a good idea to rent a bus to take the kids to camp?”
“I think we need to cut the education budget so we can give more to missions” (or visa versa)
“We have been in this Sunday School classroom for 50 years!  I don’t see why we have to move now!”
“What does the pastor do on her day off anyway?”
“Are we having communion again?”  Followed closely by “It’ about time we had communion!”

Does that sound familiar?  (Not in your church, of course, but the one you heard about across town?)

The reality is that churches large and small deal with conflict.  It come around budget time, with personnel, with theology and worship style and the décor of the sanctuary and classrooms.  It is not just the local church but THE Church that is conflicted.

Denominations are breaking apart over disagreements about missions and women and sexuality and budgets.  Throw in the larger world with issues of politics and race and immigration and poverty and education and and and…..

At times we just want to throw our hands up and scream, “Can’t we just get along?”  Given the level of discord we can understand why the fastest growing religious group in our country are the “Nones,” those who claim no religious affiliation!

We dream of a time when the church was like our dreams, the way that Jesus wanted it to be!  But it was never that way!  Did you hear it in that great hymn we sing this morning, “The Church’s One Foundation.”  We nod our heads through the first verse, “The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ our Lord; we are his new creation by water and the Word; from heaven he came and sought us to be his holy bride; with his own blood he bought us, and for our life he died.”

One foundation!  We are all united, one in the spirit, one in the Lord!  (Ooops, different song!)  But if we continue singing, we get to a verse that starts off, “Though with a scornful wonder the world sees us oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed…”

Wait!  In the church with one foundation we are rent asunder and distressed by heresies?

It is so!  And in fact, it always has been!  There never was a conflict free church!  At least not after the second member joined!  Divisions happens!  It happened in Corinth, for many of the same reasons we face today.  It would have been, it would be easier if the dissension was organized, but it was legion.  There were multiple issue then, just like today!

And the conflicts seem to catch Paul off guard.  It seems that he had intended to write a letter filled with love and kisses!  As soon as he has finished the “Dear Corinthian Church” (which follows the ancient custom and is a lot more flowery and ornate) he sings their praises.

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I give thanks to my God always…  What a strong and encouraging statement.  It sets the tone for what Paul wants to write!

But it seems he never got a chance!  Perhaps he had just penned those words (remember there was not a backspace/delete button.  Papyrus doesn’t just grow on trees!  Well, it sorta does!) when Chloe’s people arrive with some questions from a an earlier letter he had sent.  Even more, Chloe’s people are able to fill in the blanks, to really give Paul the scoop as to what was happening in Corinth!  And when he hears, well suddenly the tone of the letter changes.  He can’t write love and kisses!  There are conflicts that must be addressed.

Paul had founded the church in Corinth and nurtured the fledgling congregation, but the time came when he needed to go to other mission fields.  Though he loved the church, there were other congregations to start, other ministries to birth.

The church in Corinth was not left alone, however.  Other ministers came to be among them.  There were evangelists and missionaries who were just passing through, sharing their wisdom and theology, gifts, ideas.  Just like today, some had more appeal than others.

That was what was happening in Corinth!  Since Paul’s departure there had been a series of other preachers who had come, namely Apollos.  According to Acts, Apollos was a learned Jew from Alexandria “who taught accurately the things concerning Jesus.”  He was an eloquent and passionate speaker, and “he greatly helped those who through grace had become believers.” He had an audience who admired him and the way he presented the gospel.

There was still another group, however.  These were the “back to basics” folks who wanted to go all the way back to the original apostles.  There was a Cephas following in the church at Corinth.  There is no evidence that Peter had ever been to Corinth, but perhaps someone had been to Jerusalem and heard him speak, or had heard of him from another source who had been impressed.

Even that was not enough for some in the church!  These were the back to Jesus folk!  They weren’t interested in this new religion!  If it had been good enough for Jesus, it was good enough for them!  You almost have to wonder if this was a real faction within the Corinth church or an example of Paul’s sarcasm.  And all of these people, all of these groups, all of these parties knew they were right!

It would be easy to see the situation in Corinth as the original church fight, but that would miss the deeper theological issues being played out.  Remember Paul was writing to a congregation that lived in a particular context, with a history of philosophy and culture that weren’t “Christian.”  One of the leading philosophical influences was that of wisdom.  In this world wisdom did not mean getting straight A’s, but rather a preference for Sophia, the Greek worship of wisdom.  This showed a continuing fascination with the Greek values inherent in that system.

The Greek wisdom philosophy put a great emphasis on rhetoric, being able to argue a position in a way that was convincing to others.  Apparently, Appollos’ preaching style fit in this mold and thus fed the fascination some had with that philosophy.

Others were arguing over baptism.  The old joke (which really isn’t that much of a joke) is of ministers getting together and the first question being asked was how many baptisms they had the previous year.  It was almost a badge of honor.

The same thing was true in the early church.  Appollos had baptized many, and so many were discounting the work of Paul.  It is easy to read Paul’s response as being defensive, and in some ways it is!  But is also points out an important theological issue.  What is the meaning of baptism?  Is it a gateway into membership? Is it a hoop that one has to jump through to be a Christian?  Is it an initiation rite?  Is one method better, more Christian than another?  I know individuals who have refused to join a church because they were told that they had to be baptized again, as if their first baptism was illegitimate.  What is the meaning of baptism?

It is always easier to focus on the “presenting problem” rather than on the deeper issue.  It is easier to fight about the way we baptize rather than struggle with the meaning behind it.  It is easier to fight about how we do communion rather than ponder what the table means.

Meaning questions force us to delve into areas of theology, meaning, what is really going on in us.  Those are much tougher to wrestle with because they can’t be resolved in a 20 minute sermon or a 30 minute Bible Study.  The disconcerting truth is that in our world, with our philosophical system, we do prefer “sound bite/bumper sticker theology.”  It works better for our elevator speech, around the water cooler.  It is easier for a Twitter world.

Dealing with meaning will reveal our differences.  So it is easier just to ignore them, especially in light of Paul’s admonition in I Corinithians 1:10 in which he calls on the members to be in agreement, to have no division, to be united.  We normally read that as being all cut from the same pattern with no difference at all.

But the word used here is the same one Mark used when he talks about the disciples mending their nets when Jesus called them to follow.  Mending the nets did not mean the were all the same!  Mending did not make the hole disappear!   The mending was to assure that the nets held together.

That is the question Paul is raising for the people of Corinth and the people of your congregation.  What holds us together?  Is it the pastor?  The way we do worship?  Our Wednesday night pot-luck suppers?  Our missions in _____________?

It is an important question for a congregation to ask.  What is it that hold us?  But it is just as important to ask what holes are acceptable.  Does everyone have to be the same, do the same, believe the same?  Where are holes acceptable?  Are holes, differences, acceptable?

It was a Wednesday evening many years ago, when our daughters were young.  Anita was at choir practice so it was my job to get the girls home and in bed.  I was putting Savannah, our youngest to bed and it came time to say prayers.

At that time she was in Mission Friends, being taught by Cyndy, one of our friends, who I will say has an amazing prayer life.  Whenever she offers a prayer in church I am just amazed.  Our girls often will call and ask that I get Cyndy to pray for something.  Not me, the pastor!  Cyndy!  As they say, God pays more attention to her!  And it is true!

That night, as Savannah began her prayers, what struck me was that she was praying like Cyndy.  I can’t do that!  I couldn’t teach her that!  I needed some help.

But several months later we were coming home from University.  I was driving the van and Cyndy’s daughter was sitting in the front seat—to help keep me awake, but also to talk.  In the middle of the trip, in the middle of the conversation, I realized that I was having a conversation with her that she couldn’t have with her mother.  Cyndy needed me too!

We need each other.  We need each other to mend the nets, to make sure the holes stay together.  We need each other to keep us from idolatry, from the heresy that we have God captured, all figured out.  We need people with a different perspective, different views, different gifts.

But that only happens when we are willing to be servants to each other.  Paul and Apollos were both servants.  The word used here is diakonos, deacon.  That is what we are called to be.  You who are being ordained today; Russ and Amy, me, you!  It isn’t about privilege and power, but about being a servant.  Listening and learning from each other; looking to ways that we might work together to build God’s kingdom.

Even this day.

I look forward to being back at Providence for Ash Wednesday, and then in the pulpit on March 5 as we begin a Lenten series entitled, From Pew to Passion.

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The End of Community?

I ran into a fellow pastor the other day at Starbucks, hard at work.  I figured he was working on his sermon for next week, but instead he was working on his Facebook page.  To be more specific he was working on his list of friends.

blank-facebook-page-layout_699492“I am sorting them into lists, making sure that no one in my congregation sees anything political,” he said.  “Apparently we have some long time members who have decided to leave our church, not because of anything I have said in a sermon, but because of what I have posted on Facebook.  So I am sorting my lists, making sure no one in my church knows who I really am.”

It was a story that I am sure resonates with so many pastors. 

A friend in another city recently told me that she really didn’t want to know what her pastor thought.  “I really don’t want to know how my pastor feels about anything political.  I just want to come to church and hear the gospel.”

This isn’t a new problem.  The lectionary passage this Sunday is from I Corinthians 3, where Paul is bemoaning the fact that the early church had chosen up sides.  Now it just seems that it has gotten worse.  As technology has made it easier for us to form community, it is also dividing us into segments. 

So what does this mean for church, for community? So how is any pastor to preach “with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other?” 

As I walked out, I thought about the irony of my pastor friend.  This one who is called to form community is being forced to shut himself off from community in order to preserve community.  Is it even real? Is that what we want to incarnate in the church?  Is that what we have come to?

I wonder if I need to segregate my “friend list?”

 

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If I Had Preached…

One of the gifts our congregation gives to their ministers is an occasional sabbatical—a time to get away and rest and recover.  That is what I am doing January-February.  It is a wonderful time to just be, to read books that don’t have anything to do with a sermon, to think about things that I don’t have time to think about during “normal” time.

But these are not normal times.  This past week my daughter texted me wondering if I was glad or relieved that I wasn’t preaching this week.  I said, “Yes.” 

I didn’t preach this week.  Instead I worshipped with the congregation of Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham and heard a wonderful sermon from my friend Dorisanne Cooper. 

But the events of this past week, especially with the immigration ban, got me thinking about what I would have said if I had been preaching.  It isn’t complete, but here is what I think I would have said.

The fall of 1978 I had the privilege of studying in London.  During our break a group of us traveled around Europe—Cologne, Munich, Interlaken, Rome.  I left the group to visit some friends who were studying in Venice, but then had the task of making my way across Europe, to London, alone.

Now remember that I am an American, which means I speak English.  Only English.  For several days I had the chore of trying to read menus, find restrooms, get directions.  You can only imagine my relief when I finally boarded the ferry in Calais that would take me across the English Channel to England.

In the words of that famous author, Snoopy, “It was a dark and storm night!”  All night long the ferry was being tossed to and fro making sleep impossible.  To ward off the tossing and turning of my stomach I walked the deck.  It was one of those where even the most sober looked drunk!  It was about 45 minutes from arrival when suddenly, the clouds parted and a full moon was shining on the white cliffs of Dover.  Even now I remember the feeling, that feeling of, If I can just get there!  If I can just get there I will be able to read the signs; I will be able to understand; if I can just get there I will be home!

I was just a student trying to get back to a dorm.  But I have thought about that experience in these days, thinking about those families arriving at JFK airport in New York, just a few feet away from being in their new home, in the United States, the land of freedom where the Statue of Liberty proclaims, “give me your tired, your poor your huddled masses yearning to be free,”  What would it be like being that close, and being turned away.

That was the case for countless men and women and children last night as a result of the presidential order issued by President Trump Friday.  Basically the order severely restricts immigration from seven Muslim countries, suspends all refugee admission for 120 days, and bars all Syrian refugees indefinitely. It has been met with protest around the country because many have received this as being an anti-Muslim ban.  But it also raises questions for us about what it means to be Baptist, about what it means to be Christian.

You see, if we are Baptist, really Baptist, this is rule that we must reject, oppose, protest.  We must because it goes against the very core of who we are!  It goes against our history, our beginning.

Roger Williams was exiled from the Massachusetts colony by the Puritans for his religious beliefs.  He was driven into the “howling winter” and would have died if not for the hospitality of the native Americans.  Later he bought land from them and established the colony of Rhode Island which he was was a colony for those distressed of conscience, a place where everyone was free to worship, or not worship, in the manner they saw fit. 

At our best that is who Baptists have always been.  We have been the defenders of religious liberty, not only for ourselves but for everyone! Even if their beliefs have run opposite from ours.  We have done so because of our deep belief in soul competency, the right and responsibility of ever person to deal with God.  The government has no right to come between, nor to discriminate against any religion or faith!  That has been the hallmark of Baptists.  It has been the shining American light.

On Friday night that light was dimmed.  How will we respond?  Will we just sit back and say nothing?  Will we be more concerned with who wins the Pro Bowl?  Will we see this as just another political dispute that really doesn’t concern us?  Or will we say that our history, our heritage, who we are as Baptists demand that we reject this discriminatory ruling?  This really is a “Who are we” moment.  We can say nothing, but then integrity demands that we remove the name Baptist from our sign!

It is an important question, an urgent question.  But it isn’t the most important.  The most important question is one of our faith.  Are we going to be followers of Christ? 

The Bible is clear!  “The Bible has a lot to say about immigrants and immigration.  In fact, the Hebrew word ger, the closest word to our concept of an immigrant, appears 92 times in the Old Testament alone.”  We claim to be “People of the Book.”  So hear some of what the scripture has to say to us, today!

“You must not oppress foreigners. You know what it’s like to be a foreigner, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9)

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

“Don’t oppress the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor; don’t plan evil against each other!” (Zechariah 7:10)

“You have brought your judgment days near and have come to your years of punishment [because] father and mother are treated with contempt, and the foreign resident is exploited within you. The fatherless and widow are oppressed in you” (Ezekiel 22:4, 7)

“If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever” (Jeremiah 7:5-7)

“Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place” (Jeremiah 22:3)

“The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Psalm 146:9)

“‘I will come to you in judgment, and I will be ready to witness against sorcerers and adulterers; against those who swear falsely; against those who oppress the widow and the fatherless, and cheat the wage earner; and against those who deny justice to the foreigner. They do not fear Me,’ says the LORD of Hosts” (Malachi 3:5)

“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2)

“Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11)

“‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me’” (Matthew 25:35-40)

So much of the time we live an easy faith.  We live a nice faith.  We live what has been called moral deism—just be good people, nice people, polite people.  And most of the time, in our nice, polite, Southern Christian culture, that really comes close to passing for Christian.

But there are times….Times when we need to decide who we are; time when we have to decide.  I want to suggest that this is one of those times.  This is one of those times when we have to decide if we are Baptist.  This is one of those times when we have to decide if we are Jesus people.  This is one of those times. 

Last fall Anita and I had the opportunity to visit Boston.  Our last afternoon, totally by accident we stumbled upon the Boston Holocaust Memorial.  It is very simple, just some glass panels over a subway grate where heat and steam push upimg_3253.  On the glass panels are images of the concentration camps.  But what struck me was the inscriptions on the ground—quotes from survivors, ministers, rabbis, historians.  One in particular caught my attention and my soul.  It read, “While most people aided the Nazis or looked the other way, there were some courageous individuals in Germany and throughout Europe who risked their life to save the Jews.”

50 years from now when the Muslim Holocaust memorial is built, where will we stand?  With those who aided the oppressors, or looked the other way?  Or will we counted among the courageous, the faithful, the Baptists?

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Wait! Someone was listening?

I will admit it.  Most of the time I wonder if anyone is paying any attention to my sermon.  And I understand why.  Week after week, blah blah blah blah Jesus, blah blah blah God. Amen.  We have heard it all before.  No one is paying any attention. 

But then one morning you are reading your paper and suddenly you see your idea, your thought show up in the national news!  Someone that wasn’t even in worship that morning has obviously caught wind of your idea and now wants to make it national policy!

It happened today!  Well, the sermon was this summer, a sermon about Zacchaeus.  (I will pause for a moment while you sing the song.  Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he….)

Anyway, as a way of explaining who he was, and how he had earned his wealth, I gave this explanation.

And in this place, in this place Zacchaeus was a tax collector.  No, not A tax collector, but the chief tax collector!  It was a job that was the envy of all.  Sure, it meant that he had to conspire with the Romans; it meant that he bore the scorn of all his fellow Jews—but when you are living in one of the nicest homes in the winter capitol you can put up with a lot of scorn!

And it wasn’t like he had done anything wrong.  He had just worked the system the way it was set up!  The Romans had fashioned a system to collect taxes from their far-flung empire.  They appointed a chief tax collector who had the responsibility of sending Rome a certain amount of money each year.  If the revenue got to Rome all was well.  If it didn’t, it was the chief tax collector’s head that was on the line—or chopping block—literally!  All they wanted was the money!  How that was collected was not their concern! 

Imagine for a moment that you had that job, and Columbia said that you needed to send $100,000 this month to the coffers.  How would you do it?  Tax income—you can.  But what if you decided instead to tax every car that crossed a river?  Imagine how much money you would bring in if there was a toll booth before every bridge in Charleston—and it cost just $1.00 to cross—every bridge!  I mean, it’s only a dollar.  Not that much, but after a while, it would start to add up, because remember the fee goes each way!  Every car, every truck, every vehicle crossing a bridge pays $1.00.  How much revenue would that bring in?  This week Brian Hicks reported that there are 55,000 cars that use the Ashley River bridge every day!  Can you do the math?

And remember, you only have to send Columbia $100,000!  And if you can tax a car on the bridges, why not on the roads without bridges?  And why not the boats that come up the rivers?  Do you see the profit in this!

That is how Zacchaeus had gotten rich.  He had added another tax to the people’s burden in order to pad his pocket.  He hadn’t done anything wrong.  He had played by the system; he had worked his way up the ladder; he had succeeded!  He was rich!

12chao-master768Now obviously this wasn’t meant to be government policy!  At least, I didn’t think it was.  So imagine my surprise when I read that yesterday in her nomination hearing to become Secretary of Transportation, Elaine L. Chao, wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of KY, suggested that we might want to explore more public-private partnerships as a way of improving our nation’s sagging infrastructure.

Now on it’s face, that looks like a great idea!  Why raise gas taxes when we can drive on the Vulcan Materials Motorway.  (Ms Chao is on the board of Vulcan Materials)  And who could be against the Halliburton Highway?  It is their money that is funding it, right?

Remember that when you pay the toll on the road!

But wait!  It was my idea shared at Providence Baptist!  Maybe we should just but the Providence Baptist Wando Bridge on I-526!  It is the way people from Mt. Pleasant get to church!  We could charge $1.00 for everyone to cross it.  We will give a pass to church members who have made a pledge!  The funds will be used for missions, and good stuff!  It will be a definite membership enhancement!  You don’t have to join to use our bridge.  Just pay $1.00—each way.  Of course, you can always take another route.  And we aren’t doing anything wrong!  It is just the way the rules work.

Maybe I should listen to my sermon!

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