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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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A Response to Robert Parham

I shared this story in a sermon several weeks ago.

One of my former youth had the opportunity to spend a week after Christmas in Calcutta working with the Sisters of Charity, Mother Teresa’s convent.  All week they had worked with the poorest of the poor of that city, learning so much.  On the last night they had the privilege of having a conversation with Mother Teresa.

This was at the height of the Cold War when relations between the US and the former Soviet Union were at their height.  Fear was the mood of the world.  So as they were about to conclude, one student asked this great saint, “Mother Teresa, what are you doing to eliminate the threat of nuclear annihilation?” 

Her response surprised them all.  “Nothing.  I have been called to care for the sick and dying of Calcutta.  You go and save the world from nuclear destruction.  Perhaps that is your calling.”

I remembered it as I read Robert Parham’s column in the aftermath of the recent General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  For a decade and a half CBF has operated under a discriminatory hiring policy that was created in an atmosphere of fear.  (Bob Setzer tells the story well. ) It was a policy that was created to protect rather than progress; created in fear rather than faith; created for exclusion rather than inclusion.  For 15 years it has hung around our neck, and it is strangling us. 

But this year steps were taken to at least talk about moving forward.  “The Illumination Project” was announced to give us an opportunity to at least recognize that the world has changed, and if we are going to move forward our policies have to as well.

Yet it seems that Robert Parham, the executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, does not believe we are capable of having this conversation.  He asked, “Why prioritize the LBGTQ issue given the multitude of issues that need addressing and around which consensus exists?  Why is there the need for such a project now?”

Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I will assume that he believes that this conversation will detract us from some of the other wonderful ministries that we witnessed at the General Assembly—the work of the Baptist Joint Committee, students training for ministry in a network of seminaries and divinity schools, missions in places that we would be hard pressed to find on a map with people and languages that we could not identify.  We heard about work that is being done to eliminate predatory lending that feeds on the weakest among us.  We heard about ministries in hospitals, and with our military.  We heard a call to reach past the color of our skin to do the work of the kingdom.  All of these are important!  All of these are needed!

But so is this conversation!

It may not be one that Robert feels calls to participate in.  But that doesn’t mean that there are not others who have heard that specific call, and to say that their calling is unnecessary, to insinuate that it is less important, that it can wait….

Such a stance is the height of arrogance that say he alone knows what is needed.  It demeans the ability of free and faithful Baptist to do more than one thing well.  It fails the “Mother Teresa Test.”

The Illumination Project may not be your calling, Robert.  But for God’s sake, for the future’s sake, for the sake of all those for whom this is their life’s calling, do not demean it!  This project asks for everyone’s compassion, wisdom, and voice.

Even yours!

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Jesus and The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

It is a horrible thing to have the thought on Sunday morning, “I should have done this with the sermon!”  But that is what happened this morning.  (Truth be told it happens more than we would like to admit!)  I was going through my sermon in my head, thinking about the children’s sermon, wondering what to say about Jesus getting lost in the temple.

I could talk about getting lost (which is probably what I am going to do) but somehow had a flashback to being in the 4th

booksGrade.  I had a wonderful teacher, Mrs. Upchurch.  After lunch everyday we would have story time.  I remember her reading  Charlotte’s Web (how we were pulling for Wilbur!) She also read to us the wonderful story of The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  It is the story of two children who run away from home and hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  To be honest, I don’t remember the entire story, but even now remember how they took baths in the fountain, and took coins that they used for food.

So this morning (this really does come together) I started wondering about 12 year old Jesus.  He was gone for 3 days in the temple.  There are all sorts of questions that came to my mind!

  • What did he eat?  Have you ever tried to feed a 12-year-old boy?  Where did he get all that food?  How did he pay for it?  Or is this a miracle that didn’t get recorded?
  • Where did he sleep?  Do you think he snuck back into the Holy of Holies to sleep in his Dad’s room?
  • What was going on with those elders?  Did they not become a bit suspicious about this kids who is hanging out at the temple and doesn’t seem to have anyone looking out for him?  Did they ask any questions?  Did they invite him home for the evening?

As you can imagine, none of this made my sermon this morning.  (You can read what the good people at Providence heard this morning here.)

But…

Maybe in three years when this text shows up again….

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Beware of the Fact Checkers

My Uncle James is one of the greatest storytellers I have ever known.  He just loves sharing a good story.  I remember an early morning phone call (5:00 am) while I was a student in England when he just had to share a story he had heard (and also to argue about what the time was in London!)  Even now he will call to assist me with my sermon on Sunday.  (I rarely can use one of his stories, but they are always funny!)

Our scout troop was out on a camping trip when James decided to regale us with one of his stories, a true account of a family event.  As he was spinning the tale, a cousin kept correcting him.  “Wait, wasn’t it in December?”  “Aunt Vida didn’t live over there!”  “I am sure that Dad had already moved out of the house.”

Finally Uncle James turned to him and said, “Don’t bother me with the facts!  I’m telling a story here!”

I have thought about Uncle James a lot recently as this political campaign has moved into high gear.  It seems that everyone is “telling a story here,” rarely bothering with facts!  At the very least, they conveniently shape the facts to fit the story they are telling.  The result is a cottage industry of fact checkers.  Stories in the media will give a speech “Four Pinocchio’s” or “Multiple Flames” (you know, ‘liar liar pants on fire’.)  Depending on which candidate is indicted we are happy or enraged.

The emotion I feel most of the time is fear.  What if these “fact checkers” decide that they will come to church…and listen to the sermon!  I am not talking about the story that I shared about the conversation with a person that I pieced together from numerous conversations over the past month; I am not talking about the story I “borrowed” from Tony Campolo or Fred Craddock.  I am talking about the story we tell from the Bible!

Just last week our text was about the demise of Absalom.  We all know that he died after his hair got caught in the branches of a tree and his horse ran on, just leaving him hanging there.  How many times growing up was that used as a lesson to get a haircut?  Only one problem—that isn’t what the text says!  His head got caught.  (Look it up!  II Samuel 18)

And how many children’s Sunday School classes have sent home pictures of Joseph and his coat of many colors to adorn the refrigerator door?  It is a great craft and a wonderful story.  The only problem is that isn’t what the Bible says.  It was a coat with long sleeves!  You can understand why we would change THAT!  That doesn’t make a good craft, a good story, a good sermon.

We could go on and on!  Mary Magdalene was a prostitute; the innkeeper turned away Mary and Joseph; Matthew, Mark, Dr. Luke, and John wrote the gospels—all of these stories that preachers have shared from the pulpit with the insinuation that “This is the word of the Lord!”

Can you imagine the Fact Checker in the Balcony?  “I give that 4 Pinocchio’s”

These fact checkers must be stopped before they get to church!  Otherwise we will have to start telling the truth, and that might just ruin the story!

This post originally ran on the ABPnews Blog.

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You Can’t Say That!

It showed up on a Facebook post.

During the sermon, Don spoke for one of David’s brothers saying, “SHUT UP!” It was at this point that a squirmy four-year old looked up at me with the Home Alone face, clamped his hand over his mouth, pointed in the direction of the pulpit, and wagged his finger. #bustedbyapreschooler — at Providence Baptist Church

My response was that wasn’t the worst thing I said in THAT sermon…but it got me thinking.  What are the things that we shouldn’t say in church?  What are the topics that we can’t mention in a sermon?

In some ways it is always a struggle.  In any congregation you have a wide range of ages.  So are there topics that are inappropriate for a 7 year old?  Can you do a sermon on Mother’s Day without offending women who are childless?  How does a Father’s Day sermon hit someone who had an abusive father?  It is coming up in a few weeks–that text about David and Bathsheba.  What are we supposed to do with that?  Ignore it–with a wink, wink, nod, nod?

Ignoring the issue, hoping, praying that it will just go away, is always an option!  There are lots of churches that are ignoring issues–especially those surrounding sexuality.  We did so last week as a part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly.  Even though the most crowded breakout dealt with the recent (Baptist) Conference on Sexuality and Covenant there really wasn’t any mention of it during the plenary sessions.  (You can find the videos here)  There was a personnel committee report that said that they were making no proposals “at this time.”  But everyone knows that we must–at some time!

I do understand why!  We were dealing with a major restructuring–and kudos to the committee for the good work they did!  We were celebrating with Daniel Vestal on the occasion of his retirement after 15 years of stellar leadership.  This wan’t the time.

But when is the time?  When is the time to ask the hard questions, those that cause us to really get to the core of what we believe and allow those beliefs to be revealed in our actions?

Of course, we can just ignore them, hoping that they will go away–only the issues are going away.  Just the people, who realize that we are terrified, hypocritical or completely out of touch.

Can we say any of this in the sermon?

This originally appeared on the blog for Associated Baptist Press, a great source for new concerning the church as well as Baptists of all stripes.  You can sign up for daily news updates as well as other insightful blogs on their site.

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