“More than One Way”
I am a member of the Nelson County Ministers Alliance. It is not a very large group. There are a handful of faithful folks that meet once a month. There are an equal number of folks who show up for a month or two and then move on. Those of us who hang around rarely get much done because we are so different. At first glance the obvious reason would be our racial makeup. But that is not the case. Some might think it is political because our group contains both Republicans and Democrats. But that’s not it either. We get along great but we are so theologically different we have a difficult time finding common ground. We show up for meetings because we have become good friends. But I doubt any of us could regularly attend the same church. Deep down, we are all a bit suspicious of each other’s relationship with Jesus.
What is so unusual about that? As a child I was told some outrageous things about Roman Catholics. In the cul-de-sac where we lived there was a neighbor who always cut his grass on Sunday. I was told he had been to Mass Saturday night and so I assumed The Pope said he did not have play by the rules everyone else was forced to obey. My feeble mind I took this misinformation and made some unflattering assumptions about anyone not Presbyterian. The Episcopalians were just Catholics who had gotten a divorce. Baptists were Holy Rollers and Methodists were holy rollers who could drink. My knowledge of faith communities didn’t extend much further than that. But with each new encounter, my suspicions and misinformation increased. I suspect my story is not so different from anyone else growing up 60 years ago.
Maybe our problems stems from our obsession with what everyone else is doing. Why do some churches have folks kneel during the service? Why don’t Presbyterians call the communion table an alter like everyone else? Why do some folks say trespasses and other debtors? And what’s with this speaking in tongues? What good is it if no one can understand what is being said?
Those are just complaints from our lifetime. In Mark’s gospel John complained that someone was casting out demons in Jesus’ name and that person wasn’t even one of the chosen disciples. He complained to Jesus only to have the master respond, “Why is that a problem?”
I can hear the disciple’s outrage. “Why should THEY get credit for something only WE should be doing? Jesus, make them stop. They are going to ruin everything.”
There are three things I have learned from being righteously indignant. First, when I am Jesus isn’t always standing beside me. Second, Jesus keeps reminding me I need to worry more about who I am rather than wasting so much time pointing out the flaws of others. Third, and this is the hardest one of all, the people I am pointing out probably don’t even realize I have a problem with them.
The question that Jesus asked which flabbergasted the disciples was, “Were the people healed?”
The disciples responded, “That’s not the point. They weren’t doing it the way you would have done.”
Jesus asked a second time, “Were they healed?”
“But what,” Jesus asked. “If the man was healed, what difference does it make who gets credit?”
About a year ago my good friend James Rose asked me if I would do the annual homecoming sermon at his church. Homecomings are a big deal in Black congregations. The service is in the middle of the afternoon so folks from other churches can attend. People who only go to church once a year make it to homecoming. The food is great and the expectation is that the visiting minister is going to revive the sagging spirits of the faithful and rescue the souls of those on their way to hell. I took some members of our choir to warm up the congregation before I delivered the knock-out punch. The place was packed. Ministers from nearby churches, many of them friends of mine, were sitting on the first two rows. I imagine they were wondering why I had been chosen to speak.
I should have asked myself the same question.
I stepped into the pulpit with a carefully crafted sermon typed out days before. Strike One. At a revival you are moved by the spirit, not by a manuscript.
I looked out at the congregation and made a ridiculous assumption based on my tradition and my faith. I said something like, “I know God has saved you, so what are we going to do with this magnificent gift?” Strike Two. The task of the evangelist is to save the sinner.
But my greatest indulgence was yet to come. I only spoke for 15 minutes. Now the choir was thrilled. They had already suffered through one of my sermons earlier in the day. But the congregation had hardly settled in. They were waiting for me to work them up to a fever pitch. They were primed to push me forward with a chorus’ of “Amen’s” and “Praise God”. But the sermon was over before it had begun. Worse yet, when I finished I didn’t even issue an alter call. I hadn’t saved anyone. I had taken three mighty swings and struck out. And I knew it when I saw the face of the congregation. Like Frank Sinatra I did it my way. Unfortunately, on that day, in that particular setting, my way was the wrong way. I forgot, the purpose of the afternoon was to praise God, not for me to be applauded. It is a mistake we ministers make quite often.
So what do we do when we have different traditions, different expectations, and even different ideas on how we are to go about celebrating our love of God?
Remember the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. The two had nothing in common. There was such tension between them culturally that they just sat in silence until Jesus asked for a drink of water. She responded, and they began to talk. How often are preconceived notions drowned when a cup is shared? The older I get the more I am convinced that God didn’t send us here to convert the world. God sent us here to listen to the world and eventually share a cup of water.
Next week is World-Wide Communion Sunday. I want to try something very strange. If you have read your newsletter you know that I am asking everyone to bring something to church from a trip to someplace outside of Nelson County. Some of you are world travelers. Some of us get excited by a train ride to Washington. Regardless I want to briefly share why that keepsake remains so special to you. I believe everyone here has overcome a prejudice toward a race, a culture, or a lifestyle. We didn’t do it on our own. I believe God has led each of us to a particular person with whom we shared water, or perhaps some other drink. Next Sunday I hope to some of those stories. I’ll send an email out midweek. I am not asking anyone particular to be prepared to speak. I know not everyone feels comfortable speaking. But I hope some of you will be willing to share your story. What better way to celebrate World Wide Communion Sunday then by proclaiming how God enlightened your heart through an encounter you never expected. I am not preparing a sermon and I know you don’t want me to ad-lib. That is not the Presbyterian way. I am counting on you.
So Come Prepared.