When I began this four week series on Philippians it was intended as a good-bye address. The conclusion was to be today, using six verses from my favorite New Testament book. As it turns out I will be around a little longer than anticipated. Your interim committee has found a wonderful minister. Jewell-Ann is a good friend and I am thrilled you will be in such competent hands. She will not arrive until January, so the session has asked me to stay until then. Honestly, with the holidays, I probably should have waited until December 31 to retire. My plan is to hang around and be Jamie’s assistant until Jewell-Ann arrives so pretend this is my last sermon even though it is not.
Fifty two years ago I stood before Norfolk Presbytery and declared my intentions of becoming a Presbyterian minister. I had not yet entered college. Today, for excellent reasons, this step is not taken until a candidate enters seminary. I was asked to present a statement of faith. Half of the folks in attendance were elders from local churches. They were delighted to see a young person proclaim his faith. The rest were ministers with graduate degrees in theology who could care less what I believed.
I have no idea what I said. I am certain I was sincere. I am equally certain the statement lacked maturity. Like any living organism, faith must grow. That growth comes through experience, exploration, and taping into the opportunities God places in front of us.
I was blessed to attend four outstanding institutions of higher learning. I studied under some of our finest minds in the areas of History, Ethics, Christian Education, and Biblical Theology. Equally important, these were outstanding men and women who placed decency above personal gain. They planted seeds within my brain but ultimately, what one believes must sprout from the heart. My faith was nourished by folks whose names I have forgotten.
In 1971 Danny, a college classmate, entered my room and tearfully announced, “Zero is dead.” I don’t remember Zero’s actual name. His high school football jersey number was zero, thus the nick-name. Zero did not have a student deferment and had been drafted the year before. Zero and Danny had attended a local African-American high school. Danny asked if I would join him and a couple others who were going to see Zero’s mom. I reluctantly went. I remember being the only white person in attendance and feeling profoundly out of place. I went to offer Zero’s mother my condolences. I will never forget her words, “My son was killed in a place I never knew existed. My country didn’t care about my son until they drafted him. At least the Vietnamese soldier that killed him considered him to be man.” And then she hugged me.
In 1978 I was serving as a campus minister in Charleston, South Carolina. The Roman Catholic minister, Sam Miglarese, asked if I wanted to join him and some students working with families of migrants picking tomatoes outside Charleston. Our job was to the entertain children while the parents were in the field. What it really meant was eight hours of changing diapers. Deb managed to take some time off to join us. It was wonderful having someone in the camp with medical expertise. Deb began to care for a boy who might have been one year old. He had horrible diarrhea and pretty much needed individual care. Both of us instantly fell in love with him. I began to think of what kind of care he would receive once the family moved to the next camp. Then I wondered what kind of family would show such neglect toward a child. That Friday evening we were invited into the camp to meet the families. In my mind I already knew what sort of folks I would encounter. Again, God placed me where I needed to be. I met the parents of the child. They knew Deb had cared for him. The mother said, “Normally the children have to come into the fields with us. But we heard a priest had brought students to care for our children. My child came back fed and as clean as when we had left him. He has been sick and I didn’t want to leave him. But I trusted your priest. I trusted you. Please thank your wife for loving and caring for my child.”
In 1985 I spent a month in Nicaragua during the war between the Sandinistas and Contras. I was with a group called Witness for Peace. We traveled the countryside staying in villages. Since we were American citizens, the Contra forces would not attack a village if we were present. I had a bedroll, a small backpack, canteen, Bible, and notebook. We traveled north to Estelí where I was assigned to stay in the home of a Sandinista woman whose husband and son had been killed during the past year. I knew maybe three Spanish phrases and she spoke no English. I arrived in time for dinner. We ate, shared pictures of our families, and then sat in silence. As darkness fell I said “Estoy consado” which she understood to mean I wanted to go to sleep. She showed me my room. When she had left I sat in a chair and opened my Bible to Psalm 56. I glanced at the photo of her husband and son she had lost to bullets purchased by my tax dollars. Unexpectedly my hostess reappeared with water and some cookies. She saw my open Bible. She left and returned with her own. I would read a verse in English, she would repeat the verse Spanish. The Psalm begins, “Be gracious to me. All day long my foes trample me. I am afraid and put my trust in you.” When we finished the Psalm she said, “Buenas noches” and then something I could not understand. The next morning I ran to get one of our bilingual folks and brought her to the house. I asked my friend to ask my hostess to repeat what she had said the night before. The interpreter translated, "You are not my enemy. Hate and fear killed my family, not you.”
God has placed many folks in my path. Some I have embraced. Others I have stumbled over. Each has reshaped my faith. A mother in Bristol placed her grief aside long enough to warn me that evaluating a person by the color of their skin only exposes my ignorance. A migrant worker south of Charleston helped me understand one’s love of a child cannot be based on economic stability. A widow in Nicaragua disclosed to me loving one’s enemy is the initial step toward conquering fear and hate.
Fifty-two years ago, as I stood before Norfolk Presbytery, my statement of faith was probably a paraphrase motivated by the words, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” Today my statement of faith centers not on who I believe God to be but rather on how God keeps trying to beautifully transform us into become someone we never imagined.
Listen to Paul’s final testimony to the folks in Philippi. Let your gentleness be known. Do not be overcome by worry. Allow the peace of Christ to be the guardian of your hearts and minds. Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is loving, keep doing these things and the God of peace will be with you.
Tracy Chapman, one of my dashboard poets, added, Don’t be tempted by the shiny apple. Don’t you eat of the bitter fruit. Hunger only for the taste of justice; Hunger only for a world of truth; cause all that you have is your soul.
My friends, continue to glorify God through your words and deeds cause all that we really have is our soul. Amen.