Palmer Graduation Address
May 17, 2014
To the president of Eastern University, Dr. Robert Duffet; Interim Dean, Dr. Diane Chen; Dr. Wallace Charles Smith, Dean of the Smith School of Christian Ministry; the chairman of the board, Dr. Ardell Thomas, and chair of seminary committee, Dr. Richard Rusbuldt; board members; faculty and staff; distinguished guests, and most especially graduates and family, I greet you in the name of Jesus. It is both an honor and a wonder to be invited to address you today, knowing the universe of leaders who could have graced this pulpit. Thank you for this invitation.
As General Secretary of American Baptist Churches, I would be remiss if I did not mention the high respect in which you are held by us as a center for training ministry leaders. I long enjoyed the partnership I had with you as executive minister of ABC/New Jersey and the pioneering lay ministry program we created there. Innovation has been a hallmark of your school.
I would like to acknowledge the presence of my wife, the Rev. Dr. Patricia Medley, whose flourishing pastoral ministry has always kept me grounded in reality as a denominational staff person. And to beloved members and family of my staff, and my good friend, the Executive Minister of the Philadelphia Baptist Association, Dr. James McJunkin, thank you for being here.
In college in the late sixties in Chattanooga, TN, as the civil rights movement was challenging Jim Crow and as Vietnam was heating up, a friend of mine challenged me. "Roy, why do you bother with the church? The church has been a bastion of segregation and she has never met a war she didn't like." I had to think about it. I had to think about it hard. Why did I bother with the church?
The skeptics about the church, like my friend in the 60's, have grown in number. You know the statistics - that those who check "none of the above" on religious surveys are the fastest growing demographic in America. Church attendance is significantly down. People are "spiritual" but not religious. They like Jesus but they don't care much for the church. One does not need to be an expert in sociology to know that in America the church is experiencing a significant transition in relationship to our culture. Its uncontested role of authority, moral leadership, and centrality to life and society is quickly fading.
Too often the picture that the world sees of the church is one that does not resonate with the gospel we proclaim: the images of Westboro Baptist with its hate-filled signs picketing funerals; the image of a minister burning the Quran inciting hostility; the image of the Roman Catholic Church protecting priests abusing children; the constant video feed of slick hawkers of a gospel of greed wearing their bling, touting their wealth, soliciting the poor to undergird their lavish lifestyles. These pictures are rightfully disturbing because they are alien to the gospel we preach - they are alien to the way of Christ. Is there any wonder, then, that the reports returned on surveys about the church aren't good either? People consider us as judgmental, unloving and hypocritical. Skepticism about us abounds.
Like Jeremiah, we may want to protest, we may want to cry out, "O hope of Israel, its savior in time of trouble, why should you be like a stranger in the land, like a traveler turning aside for the night? Why should you be like someone confused, like a mighty warrior who cannot give help? Yet you, O Lord, are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name; do not forsake us!" (Jer. 14:8-9)
Over a year ago, I was on a red eye flight from the West to Atlanta for a meeting President Carter had called of Baptist leaders. I was worn out from a full weekend of church events and preaching and all I wanted to do was sleep. But, at least three times, the twenty-something young man sitting next to me woke me up ordering yet another gin and tonic. By the fourth time, he was pretty well socially lubricated, and was apologizing profusely for having awakened me so many times. Trying to make amends he asked, "Can I get you a gin and tonic?" Even after I had thanked him but said what I really needed was sleep, he remained undaunted and launched into a narrative about his life--a life I was soon to discover was filled with pathos and self-loathing. He began by telling me that he was on his way home from Salt Lake City where he had been busted for drug possession and had to return for trial. He then poured out to me how ashamed he was that at twenty-something he still could not read because of a learning disability, and how every day of school for him since the third grade had been filled with disgrace and desperation as he tried to hide the fact that he could not read. He then described his older brother and himself in words I can't repeat here, but that spoke of them being losers and leeches on their parents. And the litany of woes and self-recrimination continued.
Then he says, "And what do you do?"
"I'll tell you if you promise you won't freak out," I said.
"It can't be that bad," he replied.
"Well, I'm a Baptist preacher."
"Oh my, it is that bad."
But what he said next cut me to the quick. "So," he spat out, "I guess you've just been sitting there judging me all this time!"
Why is that the perception those outside the church have of us in the church, especially those of us who are clergy? Why do they think that we who have staked our lives on being forgiven, cannot offer grace and forgiveness? My response to him was, "Son, I've not been judging you, my heart has been breaking for you."
"So what do you think?" he said.
"It's not so much what I think as what I know," I replied. "What I know is that God loves you more than you can imagine and wants to help you get your life together."
We continued our conversation for quite a while and I guess I did ok, because as the plane was touching down he said, "I never heard a preacher talk like you before. I wish I wasn't so drunk, I’d like to talk to you some more."
Why do I bother with the church? Because of that one thing I know, because of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Even when the church isn't true to it, she still proclaims the gospel which is truth and has the power to set free, to bring wholeness and shalom, to guide us, and deliver us.
Even in my very Southern home congregation in the fifties I was taught the gospel chorus, "Jesus loves the little children all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight." Even in my very Southern home congregation, almost every Sunday our preacher would declare, "At the foot of the cross, all are equal." Even in my very Southern home church we affirmed as part of our church covenant, "We stretch our hands in fellowship to every blood washed one," in a culture where a white man would not shake the hand of a black man.
Those gospel lessons and songs were pinpricks of light shining through the shroud of death of racism that lay like a pall over the South. We sang more than we knew, we preached more than we knew, we professed more than we knew--because the gospel is greater than we knew. Those gospel lessons and songs became the seeds of sedition that would undermine the structure of race taught by our culture.
The gospel is the church's greatest gift and her greatest judge. The power of the gospel is the power to reshape our lives and the life of our community into lives that mirror the grace and love of our Lord Jesus Christ. The power of the gospel is the power to reshape our lives and the life of our community as a living word not a dead rule book. Early Baptists in England formulated the Gainsborough principle about scripture, "there is yet more light to break through." The power of the gospel as we read it in the gospel of Luke this morning is the power to bring life where death reigns. In the hands of the Spirit this living word, this narrative of God's unquenchable love has transformative power.
You can be dead in a lot of ways, not just physically. Death permeates our culture, from the killing of Trayvon Martin to the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school. Death permeates our culture as the wealth of the richest soars while the middle and working classes sink into an economic pit. Death permeates our culture where deaths from overdoses of heroin are becoming epidemic. Death permeates our culture when we fill our prisons with young men of color and shut them away into a permanent subclass. Death permeates our culture when discrimination cripples the ambitions of folks because of gender, race, economic status, or faith expression.
And you, you are called to proclaim life in the midst of death. The church is called to be a community that offers life, new life, on the basis of faith in Christ Jesus and his way. And to do that, the church cannot live as a gated community. We are called to an energetic and life-giving engagement with the world in testimony that the gospel offers a richer and more imaginative way to live where love, peace, and joy can be experienced. Just last week on another flight the woman sitting next to me introduced herself and as our conversation grew she asked, "What do you do for a living?" Hearing I was a Christian minister she quickly replied, "I am a Jewish atheist," but throughout the flight she kept peppering me with questions about faith.
Finally she asked me, "Do you feel sorry for me?"
"No, why should I? From what you have said you have had a wonderful career and you feel life is pretty good."
"I mean," she said," because of what I have said about God. Don't you think my life would be better because of God?"
"Of course I do!"
"Why?” she asked.
"Because I think we don't know true joy until we know the depth of the love of the one who created us." And then I did the unthinkable as a free-will loving Baptist, I quoted Calvin! "In his catechism, a teaching tool he developed to instruct believers, Calvin asks, 'What is the chief end of man?' 'The chief end of man,’ he answers, is 'to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.'" "That's what I think you are missing, the delight in enjoying and being enjoyed by God."
"I like that," she said, "to enjoy God."
I don't have a lot of clues about what ministry will look like 50 years from now, but I do know that it is shifting in character. What I do know is that the model for the twenty-first century church has to be more like the first century church and less like the twentieth century.
Like the first century church we must cultivate church as community, centered in Christ, nurtured in prayer and study of scripture, invited to a richer imagination of life in Christ through the word preached, and empowered by our sacred feast and the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus as God's saving act for all of creation.
Like the first century church, we must move to the places where people gather and not remain locked inside the walls of our Christian prisons, no matter how beautiful they are. Paul met Lydia at a riverside market. Peter stepped outside the house and found a gentile centurion looking for him. Priscilla and Aquila journeyed from city to city, market place to market place, synagogue to synagogue with Paul meeting people where they are. The church must go to where the hurt is, where injustice destroys, and war and hate thrive.
Like the first century church we are called to risk. Paul commends Epaphroditus, who risked his life in ministry to Paul. The Greek for risk is "to gamble." In the early church there were Christians who were known as "the gamblers" because they risked their lives caring for those struck down by plagues and other illnesses. One of the annual rituals in the hills of rural North Georgia when I was growing up was the burning of leaves in autumn. Our home stood on a hillside covered with oaks and pines. And the leaves and needles would cover the lawn like a thick blanket and threatened to kill the grass. At the front-end of the yard, where the road had been cut through the hill was a steep 8 foot bank. So, we would rake from the front of the house toward the road, pitching the leaves over the bank into the ditch that lay between the yard and the road.
I couldn't have been more than 11 on this particular fall day. Daddy and I had raked the yard and we were standing on the bank watching and tending the blazing leaves when I leaned too far forward and the bank crumbled under my feet and I fell into the fire. Before I knew it, my father had jumped into the fire beside me and was lifting me up out of the flames back onto the bank, oblivious to the danger around him.
That's more and more what ministry looks like today. The world, like Thomas, is skeptical of our message. Like Thomas, their skepticism will turn to faith only when they see the marks of sacrificial love on the body of Christ, on us.
We must be willing to risk, to gamble knowing that Christ is our one sure bet. Next week, I shall be traveling to Iran as part of a small interfaith group. Our goal: to build bridges of trust and understanding with religious leaders in Iran. Some have questioned the wisdom of this effort. But should we not be willing to risk, to gamble for the possibility of peace and reconciliation? This is not a time for the church to play it safe.
The gospel lesson we heard this morning is a powerful story of Christ's call from death to life; of Christ's power to raise us to life, overcoming the power of death. I believe in the seditious power of that gospel to undermine walls of separation, to break through cultural narratives that oppress, to create what Paul describes as a new humanity, a new and fuller form of community where the reign of God is inserting itself into the world.
Why do I bother with the church? Because of her story, the story by Christ Jesus, a story of love and redemption, a story of life triumphing over death, a story of old bones and old hearts being offered new life and new ways because in Jesus, God jumped into the fire alongside of every one of us to lift us out and to give us life.