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Sunday, November 30, 2014


A Sermon Based Upon Isaiah 64: 1-9
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
First Sunday of Advent (B),   November 30, 2014

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence-- (Isa 64:1 NRS)

Harry Emerson Fosdick was pastor of Riverside Church in New York City for many years.  When he retired, he moved to Bronxville, but he maintained an office in Manhattan, daily traveling by train into the city.     "He soon noticed that every morning a fellow commuter, whom he knew casually and who always caught the same train, would pull down the window shade as the train passed 128th Street, and then he would close his eyes.

Having observed this ritual for a while, Fosdick said to the man across the seat, `I have watched you pull your shade every morning, and I'm curious as to why.'   The other man explained, `I was born in that slum, and I find it painful to be reminded of those early days. Besides, there is nothing I can do about the pain.'     After a sympathetic silence, Fosdick responded, `I don't mean to poke around in your private life, but surely you could at least leave the shade up.'" (P.C. Ennis, p. 26, Journal For Preachers, Advent, 1993.)

It’s not easy to ‘leave the shade up’ in a world that is full of so woe and worry.   But as we move these next 4 Sunday’s of Advent, from Thanksgiving to Christmas, the Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah is going to ask us to ‘leave the shade up’ on our world and in our hearts.

This first Scripture from Isaiah 64 asks us to look at the despair and desperation of those Hebrew exiles, as they returned to their homeland in Jerusalem from exile in distant Babylon.
         You would think it would have been nice to come home, after being away so long. 
        You would think they would be excited to cross the Jordan River and return to their             
                 ‘Promised Land’. 
You would think that God would be there waiting for them, like a family waiting on a prisoner who has just be released, with arms wide open full of
         welcome and warmth.       You would think….    but that is not what happened at all.

That feeling of leaving the wealthy city of Babylon and returning to the dusty desolation of their homeland must have been something like a person feels when they lose their home in a fire, or in a hurricane, or a tornado, or maybe even when someone returns from the funeral of their spouse or best friend.  They are alive.  They are even glad to be alive.  But when they look around they don’t know how they are going start again.  They look around in complete dismay and desperation, wondering why this has happened and worrying how they will ever start their life again.

That’s how Teresa and I felt when we learned that our only daughter had a mental illness.  We knew there were some issues going on, but we still hadn’t put our figure on it.  She had just started high school and wanted to play on the volleyball team.  I told her, when you come home from school, I’ll take you outside and we’ll practice a little and I’ll teach you some skills.  “That’s O.K., Dad”   I thought she was just being a teenager.  The week went and at the end of the week, she came home with a disappointed look.  “I didn’t make it”.   I tried to console her, but she said she was fine.   It was a strange that she worked through it that fast.  Within the next week everything fell apart.   It wasn’t about the volleyball.   Her behavior became self-destructive.  She wasn’t on drugs.  It was worse than that.   The chemicals in her brain weren’t firing correctly, the doctor told us.  “I’m not like you!”  She told us.  “I can’t think like other people.”  She went from making straight A’s in Latin, to making C’s and just getting by.  Nothing made her happy.  Nothing made her sad.   She was a ‘mind’ in her own world, with only brief moments any sense of normalcy.    We did all kinds of therapies, medicines, treatments, counseling to try to help.  All we could do is watch her mind and her life become as desolate as a desert.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,…” (64.1) was how prophet echoed the desperation of the people.    Have you ever been in a situation of total desperation?   As we enter this Christmas season many are feeling the desperation of poverty, of the stress of life, of joblessness, or uncertainty and fear of the future.   Most of us have been there, or we will:  You feel all alone.  You wonder how you will make it through another day.  You wonder why God has done this to you and you worry that God might be against you, rather than for you.   “The mass of people…” the great poet Thoreau wrote, “lead lives of quiet desperation…”   Then he adds,  “A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games of amusements.”  When I repeat that line, I can’t help but think of how the recent comedian, Robin Williams, kept a straight face, even told jokes, and helped people, all to cover up his own true feelings of despair, until his “quiet desperation” finally took away the last bit of energy he had for life.

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…”  If you only go up a few sentences before today’s text begins, you will notice the prophet crying out for the LORD to ‘look down from heaven and see, from (his) holy and glorious habitation (63.15a).   That’s how everything else looks when you are in a moment of depression and despair.  Everyone else is looking down on you.   Everyone else is ‘holy’ and has a ‘glorious’ living.   You are the one who is left alone.  Even God himself has gone into hiding, it seems.  Even the one who promised to ‘never leave or forsake us’ or the one who promises that ‘nothing will ever separate us from the love of Jesus Christ’, where is He?  Where is that love now?  Where are those promises now?   Or as Isaiah puts it in the rest of this verse, “Where are your zeal and your might?  The yearning of your heart and your compassion?  They are withheld from me” (63:15b).   When we feel like this, it is very hard to ‘leave the shade up’.   When we feel like all we want is to put down the shades,  crawl into darkness, and have the world come to an end.

Just the other day, I ran into a fellow who was looking around at the troubles of our world, maybe in his own world too, and he was saying to me, that according to the Bible, we are in the end times,  the signs are everywhere, and it won’t be long now.    “It’s in the Bible.  It’s all in according to the Bible”,  he said,  treating the Bible more like a crystal ball he’d read at a Séance, than a book of hope, he’d read at church.   

I listened to him tell about how bad things are, agreeing with him that there is much trouble around, but then I answered something like: “I know we want Jesus to come,  (for God ‘to tear open the heavens and come down’, but don’t count on it to happen like we think.”   “What do you mean?”, he asked me.     I answered, people have predicted and even prayed for the end of the world to come, but it hasn’t.   Even Jesus said, “When you think it’s the end, don’t count on it!” (Mark 13:7 , KJV).   When Jesus spoke about the end of the world, it was the end of Jerusalem, but it was also the beginning of the church.    When the Romans thought it was the end of Rome, it was, but it was only the beginning of Christianity.   When people have thought, many times in the past, that the world was ending, or that the Martians were landing, or whatever might happen,  it normally didn’t happen exactly that way.   When we look back in history, normally, it was even only a part of their world that ends, and then life started back up again, though in a very different way.  

During the great depression in the United States in the 1930’s, everyone thought it was the end of the world, the end of America and the end of their lives.   There were some people who even took their lives, thinking there was no way out.  Someone went to an economics expert and asked him,  “How long do you think this depression will last?”  “When do you think it will end?” they asked.    The expert answered that the last time things got this bad lasted 400 years.   They called it the Dark Ages!  (As quoted from Ken Burns Series on the Roosevelts, Sept. 2014).   But even the dark ages came to an end, but the world didn’t.

This “quiet desperation” among those Israelites who returned from exile, and went back to the desolation in Jerusalem, was difficult and depressing.  It is true, that ‘their own world had ended’, and it would never be the same again.   They returned home, and it didn’t feel like home.    Everything was different, and worst of all, it even felt as if God wasn’t there.   The feeling they had was not that God didn’t exist, but it was as if God was in his ‘holy’ and ‘glorious’ heaven and God didn’t care.   Can it get any worse than that?

Even though predictions of the end of the world have always failed (Thank God!), or the realities we have awaited have often proved to be more complicated and quiet different than we thought (Thank God again), there is a certain ‘dignity’ to those who feel ‘disquiet’ and ‘desperation’ when the world around us become ‘desolate’.  

When the people and the prophet looked around in their own moment of ‘rude awakening’, they remembered how it was and hoped for how it could be again---how things could be better and how they might be different than they are and how they might make their world better than it was.    Isaiah hoped the “mountains would quake at (God’s) presence” (vs 1),  just it did in ‘ages past’,  like it did with Moses on Mount Sinai, or with Joshua at Jericho.   The people’s desire for “God to come down” and “make known his awesome deeds” was also a desire for them to   ‘gladly do right’, the text tells us.   They were prodigal sons and daughters coming home, and their wanted to be their father’s child again, and to make their Father proud.   We have a desire like that, even when we are surrounded by desolation, there is dignity and there is a sign of hope.  

When those fires were releasing their terrible, destructive force in California,  you could hear the desperation of people who had lost it all.   “Everything I’ve worked for all my life for all these years, gone!”   That is a terrible feeling.  But what might be even worse is that building a house made of wood and stumble is all you have accomplished in all your life.   I prefer, the spirit of that couple I heard in Oklahoma, after the Tornado leveled their home and an entire down.  “It hurts, yes, but it’s just brick and mortar.  We’re thankful to have our lives.  We will rebuild.  We will not let this get us down.”

Thomas Edison had worked for months, all day and late into the night, trying to invent the light bulb.  As he came out of his lab one evening, he looked exhausted.  A friend asked, "How many experiments have you done already?" "More than 1,900," Edison replied. "More then 1,900!" exclaimed the colleague. "That's incredible. You must feel very disappointed by now, very much a failure."
Edison straightened to his full stature, and his eyes glistened. "Not at all," he said. "I don't feel like a failure. I've made so much progress. You see, I now know more than 1,900 things that won't work. One of these days, I'm going to hit on the one that does." (Maxie Dunham, Perceptions, p. 76)

When the world around us is not working, people with dignity and faith, keep working, and they also keep looking around for what will work as they keep working themselves.   Even in moments of ‘quiet’ or ‘noticeable’ desolation and desperation, people prove the values of dignity in their heart.   They know, to put it bluntly, that wherever God appears to be hiding in the moment,  God will ‘meet those who gladly do right’.    We too, in times like these, or any times for that matter,  must keep on ‘doing right’, ‘praying for the kingdom’ and doing the good works we are called to do, in the name of Jesus, who also never gave up.   We ought to remember his words, when he also contemplated the end of everything.   He not only said, when there were ‘wars and rumors’ of wars ‘that the ‘end was not yet’ (Mk. 13.7), but he also said,  “the gospel must be preached to all” (Mk 13.10) and that ‘those who endure to the end will be saved (Mk. 13.13).”   Keeping our dignity and our determination in troubled times may not be the sign of the end, but it might just be the sign of a new beginning---a new beginning with God and a new beginning of God at work in the world.

The hardest thing we ever have to do, as a person and a Christian, is to keep working for the good and staying true to our faith, while we wait on that new day to come.   Waiting and wondering what will happen next is the hardest work of all.   But we will have to wait, the prophet says.   We have to ‘gladly do right’ and wait on God, because there is no other God we can depend upon.   “No eye has seen any God besides you”,  the text saysThere is no other God other than the God “who works for those who wait for him.” (v. 4).    Do see what the Israelites had learned in Exile away in rich, but pagan Babylon.   Even, back there when they had everything they wanted, they came to realize there was no other God they could truly depend upon, other than their God, so they had to learn to wait.

Desmond Tutu, the gentle prophet who remained faithful during  South Africa's terror, said that to be a Christian means to be a prisoner—a prisoner of hope and grace.  In our Christian baptism, we too surrender to God because we have been captured by the powerful, overwhelming, everlasting love of God.  There is nothing we can do to escape the prison of Christ's promise to us—the irresistible pull of his purpose and hope of our lives.   (As told by Susan Andrews, in her sermon, Alert in the Abyss, www.goodpreacher).

Life---even life in the grace of God, can certainly feel like a prison sometimes.  When that happens we have a choice to make.  We can choose to feel boxed in and defeated when come to realize the limits of our situation, or we can submit to the discipline of waiting for God with dignity and awareness of our full and necessary dependence on God.  Scripture tells us, and our experience of God’s love and grace assures us, that to be imprisoned by God's grace is to be invited into new kind of freedom---a freedom of hope---and this hope in one that will prove to be worth the wait.
But what difference does waiting make?   If God can give us hope, why can’t we have God come down and fix everything right now?  Like children, who want Christmas to be here tomorrow, we cry out our questions of frustration and impatience to God.   “O that you would tear open the heavens, and come down….”  

We all want God to come, or do we?  Do we really?   And if God did come, would we even notice, or would we recognize him any better then, than we do now?  They did not recognize Jesus, when he came, did they?   What makes us any better at responding to the things that God gives us to bring us hope?   Desolation and despair can drive us to our knees in dignity with a desire to do right, and it might even bring us to realize our need and dependency upon God, but why doesn’t God make himself fully known right now, revealing himself, fixing the messiness of the world, bringing his kingdom that is always coming, but never comes, why doesn’t he do it all at once, and once forever?   What difference and what value is there that we have to wait?  What is this ‘waiting’ all about?

Waiting is not always what we want, but it might be what we need.   Let me explain.  Are you ready for Christmas, tomorrow?   The children are, but of course, they don’t understand, but you do.   When you haven’t done all your shopping, you aren’t ready for Christmas to come tomorrow.   When Christmas comes too fast, too soon, and too often or too early, you surely can become bored and unenthused with it all.   How many of us complain about how the stores start putting up Christmas trees, sooner and sooner?  Once they started Christmas after Thanksgiving.  Then, the start to show up the week before Thanksgiving.  Before you know it, you start seeing Christmas decorations right after Halloween.   Now, it’s already starting not just before Halloween, but my Lord, now the WMU have “Christmas in August, or July”.  

We all want Christmas to come, just like we all want our hopes to be fulfilled, but what will we do with ourselves when it happens.   I guess we all be like that cynical person who wonders what they will do up in heaven for eternity.   Won’t it be a little boring, they think to themselves?  We might then start realizing too, just like a child must also learn, that getting what we want , when we want, is not always the best thing.     Not long ago, on the news I heard about what the Rock musician Sting, told the press.   He said, I quote, “My children will not be inheriting my 180 Million Pounds.  They will have to work for a living and earn their own way.  Besides, he’s going to be spending his money, anyway.  He doesn’t want to leave them trust funds that will be Albatrosses around their necks…  He fears it would ruin them not to have to learn to learn to wait and to work. (

I know, that sometimes, when things are difficult or desolate, we can all wonder, Where is God?  Why won’t He show up?   Mark Twain had Huck Finn praying for fish hooks and he didn’t get any, so he quit praying.   Some will lose faith over that, when they look around at what has happened, or how things are, and don’t get what they want, or need, as when prayers seem unanswered.   We all have times when we wonder?  What is God waiting on?   When will Jesus return?  When will the millennial reign of Christ on earth begin?  When will the kingdom come, when the kingdom’s of this world become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ? as Handel wrote.  When will God come to get rid of all our problems and enemies?

I know we don’t like to wait, but I do think Isaiah might have a point, when he says, while we are waiting on God, God could be waiting on us.  Did you read the end of verse 9, when the prophet wrote, “Now, God don’t be too angry at us, because of our sins!  Think about that.  Aren’t you glad God didn’t show up just when you were in the middle of YOUR sins?  But there is more, when the prophet concludes:  Consider this, O LORD, we are ALL your people.”  I just wonder if this realization or reality is what God is waiting on?  While we  want God to ‘tear open the heavens and come down to take care of things,  God may be waiting on us to at least  ‘consider’  that “WE ARE ALL (God’s) PEOPLE?    Could God be waiting on that kind of understanding from us?   One thing for sure, you don’t get that kind of ‘knowledge’ when things are going good.  You only get it when you realize why God is still waiting---and he is also waiting on you.   Amen.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

“Blessed Be the Names”

A Sermon Based Upon Romans 16: 1-16
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sunday,   November 23, 2014

Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.” (Rom 16:16 NAU)

Who can get excited about reading a list of names?

Preachers have been warned to stay away preaching on lists of names, even when they appear in the Bible.    Preachers shouldn’t take names, read names, nor make roll calls in churches.   If you think about cutting the church roll, even if they don’t come to church, don’t even think about it!   If you’re a preacher or a deacon, just say to yourself:  “Blessed be the Names!”  

In one church I actually suggested at least looking down the large list of names on the church roll that consisted of over 1,000 members; over 5 times our average attendance.  They had relocated out of the inner city.  They left their building behind, but they were sure to take that large list of names on the roll that nobody knew.  “Well, we used to know them,” they said.  “They moved to Florida.”  “They moved West.”  “Nobody’s seen or heard from them in years”.   I suggested we might contact them and see if they had joined another church or were deceased.  Then we could cut some of the names.  “Somebody might get mad, if we call them!  The deacons listened to what I had to say, but nobody got excited.  It was just a list of names.

Then, one day we needed to build a new building.  We had a consultant come in to help us raise the money.  He was going to charge us a simple and fair fee, based upon all the members we had on the roll.   You should have seen how fast they were calling the names on that list.  “Blessed be!  The names!

Remember how they called the roll of names at school, and sometimes even in Sunday School?  It always came at the beginning of the class or the day, but here Paul calls out the names at the end, and the names are really strange sounding   These names are hard to read and hard to pronounce, just like the first one, “Phoebe.”   “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae….”  It’s hard to say whether it was official, but she was at the top of Paul’s list.    

There are other strange names on Paul’s list, like Prisca and Aquila.  One sounds like a soft drink and the other like an ink pen.  In other parts of the Bible they are known as “Pricilla and Aquila”, but Paul knows them personally.  He puts her name first.   Then comes another married couple, whom Paul ‘strangely’ calls them both ‘apostles’.   To call a woman an ‘apostle’ was so strange that some Bible translators changed her name to a man’s name, Junias, but her real name was Junia, as in petunia.   These are just some of the ‘strange names’ on Paul’s list, but to Paul they weren’t strange at all.  He ‘commends’ them and ‘greets’ them as friends, co-workers, and brothers and sisters in the Lord.   It doesn’t matter whether they were men or women; Paul treats them like his equals, and all equals to each other, honoring their work in the Lord.  Without hesitation or even a hint of discrimination (common for that world and ours),  Paul makes all their names blessed because, “In Christ, there is no male or female…Jew or Greek, but all are the same in Christ.”

Back to Phoebe.   Perhaps she was at the top of Paul’s list, because she was carrying the letter back to Rome on a business trip, for she was a prominent lady.   How Paul ‘commended her’ reminds me of a recent documentary by Ken Burns on the Roosevelt’s.  It was primarily about the President’s, Teddy and FDR, but when it ended, the most celebrated Roosevelt, was the one named Eleanor.   A lot of people didn’t like Eleanor, because she was a strong woman.   She had to be.  When she was small, her mother told her that she was ugly and looked old.   She never had any self-confidence, even though she was the niece of Teddy Roosevelt, and she was a Roosevelt herself, her husband’s 5th cousin.  

When they were married, Franklin Roosevelt admired her, but he never loved her.  They were political partners, good friends, but they were never really husband and wife.  But she kept going, and she learned to be the best political partner and advocate for her husband, even after he was stricken with polio.   She didn’t give up, and in the end, she was the last Roosevelt standing.  While Teddy and FDR are remembered as great presidents for the United States, Eleanor is remembered what she did for the world.   After, her husband death, she was set free and she was called to work for the United Nations, where she eventually wrote the Universal Bill of Human Rights, perhaps the greatest accomplishment of any man or woman.  

I commend to your our sister….Phoebe, and Eleanor, and others….   When you read something like this, you mustn’t dare see them as just names on a list.     Could your name could be on a list like that?    You don’t have to be famous.   In fact, I wouldn’t remember any of these ‘names’ in the Bible.  They are so ‘strange’, hard to pronounce.   They might not even be on Paul’s list either, if they weren’t also on God’s list.   You could be on that list, too!  BLESSED BE THESE NAMES!

“When you read this list,” says the preacher Fred Craddock (who gave me the idea for this sermon), “Don’t just call it a list.  It’s not ‘just’ a list.   Even lists of names can get interesting.   Dr. Craddock, in his home spun way, tells of going to court on jury duty down in Georgia, where he retired.  He recalled about 250 names being read from a list and some of them were interesting. 
        “There were two Bill Johnson’s on the list; one was black and the other white.”  
        Then they came to read the name of “Mrs. Clark” and a male voice answered, ‘here!’  
The clerk of court looked up suspiciously, and said again but this time in the form of a question.
         “Mrs. Clark?” 
        “Here”, the male voice answered.  
        The Clerk was sharper, “Mrs. Clark?” 
        “Well, the male voice answered, “I thought the letter was for me.”
        The Clerk said,  “We summoned Mrs. Clark.”
        “Well,”  he said,  “I’m here.  Can I do it?  She doesn’t have any interest in this sort of thing?
The Clerk said, “Mr. Clark, how do you know?  She doesn’t even know she been summoned.”  (As told by Fred Craddock in sermon, “When the Roll Is Called Down Here”, as printed at the website:

That was an interesting list.   

When I was in college, I recall many interesting names I’d never heard before.   Gardner-Webb had many New Jersey names like Krushinski, Linderman, Query, Saknini, and Naser.  Ali Naser, from Iran, was my roommate for a semester.   We were from different worlds.

Tom Query had a weird name, but he was a great guy.  He was a very talented Christian magician who captured our undivided attention with his tricks.  He said they were really sleight of hand, not magic, since magic was forbidden in the Bible.  He sure could get our attention, and then he would preach a sermon.  Once he took my class ring and made it disappear by rolling it on the back of his hand, he said.  But I never saw it.  It was magic to me.

One of my best new buddies was Nageel Fuad Sakhnin.  He was from Nazareth.  How appropriate was it to be studying at a Christian college getting to know a guy from Jesus’ hometown.  That made an impression on me.   We became great ping-pong buddies and I never ever beat him, not even once.  I used to be pretty good at ping-pong, too.   But when I played him I had to stand 10 to 15 feet from the table just to return his serves.   He taught me a lot.  He taught me that something ‘good could still come out of Nazareth’.   I wonder where Nageel is today.  A Baptist pastor in Nazaeth has his name, but it was too dangerous to show his picture.  I’ll just have to settle for blessing the name.

When I think about people that Paul knew, people who partners with him in faith, I wouldn’t call these just a ‘list’ of names either.   I feel the same way about ‘names’ when I walk through a cemetery at my home church, or at other churches with cemeteries, were I’ve been pastor.   I’ll never forget how at my first church,  while I was preparing for the evening worship service, I noticed an older fellow walking around in the cemetery, so I went out to invite him in.  
        “We would love to have you come in and worship with us.”
        He paused a moment, then answered:  “Preacher, when you get as old as I am, you’ve got more friends out here, than you do in there!”
        He’s right.   These are not just names.    Blessed be the names!

Think about what Jesus once said when announced to his disciples that he in the coming of God’s kingdom, he had seen “Satan, falling like lightening from Heaven.”  Immediately after this, he said,  “But rejoice not because the demons are subject to you, but rejoice because your name is written in heaven!”    Now, you will want to be on that list!  

I know that you have your own list of names that may not be anyone else’s list, but they are on yours and they are on God’s.  Someone you loved.  Someone who loved you.   One of the things that made Prisca and Aquilla so special to Paul was how, he said, ‘they risked their necks out for him’ (16.4).  You just don’t forget people like that.

 I recall how my Aunt Katie went to the beach with us one year.  Her husband, my dad’s brother Roy, had just died from complications from an accident.   She had to raise her two sons alone, Ronnie and Bruce.    Katie was such a wonderful, kind, caring person.  When I was real small, she took me to the beach to play in the water.    She said I went under the waves, but she quickly pulled me back up.  It was the first time I’d ever been under water.  When we got back to the house and mom asked how things went, I said:  “I’m OK, but Katie let me drown.”    Really, she saved my neck, and I didn’t know it.   Blessed be the Names!

Folks, names like these are not boring at all.  They are people, Paul’s people, real people, my people, your people, our people.  They are people who lived, who loved, who served, who cared, and who died in Christ.  Their names are anything but mere names in a list. Don’t call it a list.  Don’t read over it without a prayer.   Because of their names, your name might one day appear there.   Blessed be the Names!

I can imagine you know some names who should be there.  They are on your list.  When I think of all the names of people I’ve known, people who risked their necks for me,  people who stuck out there necks with me, and people who cared for me, when I didn’t even know how to care about life itself.   When I think about people like that, I remember someone who said,  “My mother is gone.   I didn’t visit her like I should.  I didn’t think of all she’d done.  I didn’t even realize what all she did do, when she was here with me.  But now I know.  And now that she is gone, I’d give everything I own, all the money I have in the bank, just to have one more moment, one more minute, maybe even an hour, to tell her what I should have told her all along.  Blessed be the Names!  Don’t ever call it a list.

There is one more name we need to notice, to remind us of how we all get on that list, we must never call, just a list.  His name comes in verse 5, where Paul says,  “Greet Epaenetus, who was the first convert in Asia for Christ”  (16.5).    Now that’s certainly someone to remember.  That’s certainly not just any name.  The first person who gave their life to Jesus in the larger, Gentile world, is more than a milestone, they are still a living, loving, caring and compassionate witness.  Did you notice how Paul still calls them, “My Beloved”?

I know a little of what Paul felt about Epaenetus.   When I worked as a missionary, conversions were hard to come by.   We saw a sizeable core group of youth develop, as they met in our homes and finally at the church.  We watched movies together, ate meals together, went on bike rides together.  We weren’t just a group, we were becoming a family. 

When several years later, I had to leave Germany,  they gave us a farewell party.  They presented me with a framed picture of their faces, and they gave me a T-Shirt.  They had printed a picture of us all together and then they signed all their names.  Those aren’t just names ---Burckhardt, Torsten, Olaf, Jackie, Katie, Anna, Alexandra, Marko and Frank.   Pronounced in their language, they might sound strange to you, but there family to me---blessed be the names.

I could go on.  But you get the picture.  When we read these names, they aren’t just names.   There are 36 names on Paul’s list, 423 in the New Testament, and 3,237 in the entire Bible. Those are a lot of names.   We can only recall a few at a time—Abraham, Issac, Jacob, Jesus, Peter James and John, and Paul.   Sometimes even thy are hard to remember, like the guy on the street who was asked to name Jesus’ closest disciples and answered:  Paul, John, George and Ringo.   Who were they?  How many where they?  There could be more.    Let me explain as I tell you one more story, from the master storyteller, Fred Craddock.

Before he married Nettie, the young preacher Fred Craddock, moved down to a little village on Watts Barr Lake between Chattanooga and Knoxville.    He said, “It was the custom in that church at Easter to have a baptismal service, and it was held in Watts Barr Lake at sundown on Easter evening.  Out on a sand bar, he stood with the candidates for baptism. After they were immersed, the candidates moved out of the water, changed clothes in little booths constructed of hanging blankets, then went to the fire in the center. Last of all, the young preacher went over, changed clothes, and went to the fire where the little congregation was gathered, singing and cooking supper.
Once we were all around the fire, Glen Hickey—it was always Glen—introduced the new people. He gave their names, where they lived and worked. Then the rest formed a circle around them while they stayed warm at the fire.
The next part of the ritual was that each person around the circle gave her or his name and said,
"My name is____, and if you ever need somebody to do washing and ironing, call on me."
"My name is____, and if you ever need anybody to chop wood, call on me."
"My name is____, and if you ever need anybody to baby-sit, call on me."
"My name is____, and if you ever need anybody to repair your house, call on me."
"My name is____, and if you ever need anybody to sit with the sick, call on me."
"My name is____, and if you ever need a car to go to town, call on me."
And around the circle they went. Then they all ate and had a square dance.   They were disciples, not Baptists.   Finally at the appointed time, Percy Miller, with thumbs in his bibbed overalls, would stand up and say, "It's time to go." Everybody would then leave.
After his first experience of this ritual, “Percy Miller saw me standing there, still,” Craddock said. “ He looked at me and said, "Craddock, folks don't ever get any closer than this."
Do you know what they call a ritual like that,  “THEY CALL IT CHURCH”  Blessed be the Names.

"I thank my God for all my remembrance of you."  That what Paul says elsewhere.  Why don’t you go home and write that down and add a name to it.   Then write another name, and another name, and another.  Keep the list, keep in in your Bible, because, it's not just a list. In fact, the next time you move, or when you go to hospital, or when you feel alone, hold on to that list.  Even if you have to leave and lose everything else,  Craddock says,  your car, your driver’s license, your furniture, your land, and everything else.  Whatever you do and wherever you go, take that list with you (As quoted and embellished from link above).

There’s just one more thing, that I will add to Fred Craddock’s list you shouldn’t just call a list.  Make sure that your name is on somebody’s list, and of all things,  make sure you are on God’s list.  

May God bless your name, because of His name, and blessed be all the names!   Amen.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

"Life Together”


A Sermon Based Upon Romans 15: 1-7
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sunday,   November 16th, 2014

A young Rabbi found a serious problem in his congregation.  During the Friday service, half of the congregation stood for the prayers and half remained seated, and each side shouted at the other, insisting that theirs was the true tradition.  Nothing the Rabbi said or did moved toward solving the impasse.  Finally, in desperation, the young rabbi sought out the synagogue’s 99 year-old founder.  He met the old rabbi in the nursing home and poured out his troubles.  “So tell me,” he pleaded, “was it the tradition for the congregation to stand during the prayers?”  “No,” answered the old rabbi.  “Ah,” responded the younger man, “then it was the tradition to sit during the prayers?”  “No,”answered the old rabbi.  “Well,” the young rabbi responded, “what we have is complete chaos! Half of the people stand and shout, and the other half sit and scream.”   “Ah,” said the old man, “that was the tradition.”1

CAN WE ACCEPT ONE ANOTHER at church, even when we see things differently?  In his letter to the Roman Church, the apostle Paul raises this 25 thousand dollar question.  In fact, Paul does not pose this as a question, but gives a word of instruction so that church might truly happens. He says: “Accept each other just as Christ has accepted you.”  (Romans 15:7)2  

When Paul first raised this issue, the situation was not all bad.  The church was growing.   Due to Paul’s persistent evangelistic efforts among Gentiles, an influx of outsiders, that is pagans, were coming to church.  Surprisingly, Paul found less resistance among them than among the more traditional Jewish sectors.  This was good news.

Now comes the bad news.  As Gentile converts came into the churches, they certainly brought new opportunities, but they also brought baggage from their own culture as non- Jews.  For one thing, Gentile Christians weren’t raised in the strict Kosher traditions of Judaism.  Gentiles enjoyed pork and other meats and saw nothing insulting about their diets.   Gentile Christians also saw nothing wrong with reinterpreting the 4th commandment, moving worship from Sabbath to Sunday.  This was much more convenient for their work schedules and it was a good way to commemorate the Resurrection, which took place on Sunday morning.   As innocent as those differences seem to us today, these “strange ways” of the Gentile Christians caused great disruption among early congregations.

I recall in one of my previous pastorates how the church council decided we needed to reach out to people who lived in mobile homes in our area.  Several of our members owned mobile home parks and had sincere concerns for the spiritual condition of their tenants.  Everything went well until I, actually lead one lady to Christ and brought her to church.  To see this woman, sitting in the pew with them, with all of her personal problems and emotional baggage unnerved us.  We saw that she had been converted to Christ, but she was still far from being “one of us”.    Its one thing to talk about winning the world to Christ, but it’s quite another thing when the world actually shows up.   It’s one thing to send missionaries out, but it’s something different when the mission is in your own church community.  Although differences among Christians have changed through the years, the challenge of accepting one another is very much the same.  

This is why Paul’s word to the church is timeless: If you want to be a church that brings a witness to Christ and is not a stumbling block to him, then you must master the logic of accepting each other just like Christ has accepted you.  Paul says that this is the only way God will be glorified (15:7).  It is the only way that we all can join together with “one voice, giving praise and glory to God.” (15:6). 

Of course, THIS IS EASIER SAID THAN DONE, ISN’T IT?  We know what the biblical word is, but we wonder: isn’t there is a limit to what we should and should not accept?  Besides, we live in a day of decaying morals with a downward spiral of human civility.  People seem too accepting and over tolerant.  Aren’t we prone to believe that this kind of permissive attitude got us into our moral mess anyway?   Sometimes religious conservatives warn : “Beware of the slippery slope.”  They capitalized on this logic, telling us that all one has to do is compromise on one point, accept one person we shouldn’t or one proposition we shouldn’t, and we are already sliding off into the bottomless chasm of no return.  Such dramatic, fear-based rhetoric, leads only to an increased climate of suspicion, conflict and division, not reconciliation.  

Of course, being Christian does not mean that since Jesus accepts us we ought to accept anything and everything that is called Christian.  Being Christian does mean that some things are not Christian.  Reinhold Niebuhr, after realizing what tolerance of the Nazis did to Germany, said prophetically: “God without wrath, brought men without sin, into a Kingdom without judgement, through ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”   Certainly and especially in our kind of slippery world, the logic of acceptance cannot mean that we are to be accepting of anything and everything.             

Unfortunately, this is as far as many go. We go just far enough to define what we think God can or can’t accept, majoring on what we are against, rather than remembering what we are for.  In this day of moral decline, culture wars, and political polarization, many are wondering if we in the church can offer any help in overcoming our cultural confusion, our human prejudice and our political divisiveness, instead of adding to it.  Do we have a word beyond defining who is right and what is wrong?  What kind of world can we expect when we, even we in the church, find it easier to draw lines between us, rather than draw circles around us?  Would our line-drawn-world really be a more perfect world?    

Naturally, when something threatens us, we defensively focus on what is right about us and what is wrong about others.  That is human nature.  But PAUL CHALLENGES US TO go a step further-- to go to the level of a HIGHER LOGIC of accepting, a logic based not upon human nature, but upon the divine nature revealed in Jesus Christ.  Paul wants us to move to this more personal and more constructive level human relationships.  Let’s quickly review what this means.

First, in Romans 14:1, Paul’s logic of acceptance says, “Accept Christians who are weak in faith, and DON’T ARGUE with them about what they think is right or wrong.”   How many friends are made with arguments?  How many people are won to your position when you prove them wrong and prove yourself correct?  Whether the issue is food, style of worship, day of worship, music, or moral lifestyle, Paul says, that when we underline or accentuate our differences we are doing unnecessary harm to our spiritual fellowship.  

Furthermore, we should be RELUCTANT TO PROVE OURSELVES BETTER than others.  “Remember, each of us will stand personally before the judgment seat of God,” Paul says (14:10).   Here is the ultimate reason not to press every issue within our fellowship: Nothing is finally settled by us, but will only be settled by God at his judgment. What logic is there in condemning or putting down each other when the Bible says, “there is no condemnation to those in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 8:1)?   I once asked my Father why he was such a quiet man; never gossiping or putting down anyone.  He answered: “Son, have you not read that the Bible says we will give an account of every idle word we speak?”  In that moment I wondered what God would say about my stupid question.

The next part of Paul’s logic of acceptance is most profound.  In Romans 14:20 he tells the church: “Don’t tear apart the work of God over what you eat.”  At the heart of Paul’s logic, we are reminded that when we there are differences of religious “taste” or viewpoints among believers, we must make sure we don’t tear up the main thing we all want by attempting to get rid of the lesser thing that offends some of us now.  Let me ask: how many have ruined a sweater by pulling at single loose thread?  Is fixing that thread worth all the damage it might do, if we pull carelessly.   How many have pulled up a tender plant when attempting pull up a stubborn weed?  “Let the weeds and wheat grow together,” Jesus says.   The Kingdom of God does not come by fixing all the little things, but the Kingdom of God comes as we all work toward the big things that are the same for us all: living the goodness we know, keeping the peace with each other, and living out of the joy of the Spirit (14:17). We must make sure we keep the main thing the main thing, for God’s concern is for the attitude of our faith; not the exactitude of it.  Our aim in explaining our differences should be ‘clarity’ not ‘victory, as Bill Hull has rightly said.

The final word in Paul’s logic of acceptance in found in 15:1,2: “We must be considerate of the doubts and fears of others...We should please others.”   Fellowship doesn’t happen when we live for ourselves.  Consideration of others needs and sensitivities, especially those of the “weaker sibling”, is what finally creates the atmosphere of Christian fellowship.   Who is the weaker sibling?   At some time or other, it will be any of us. This does not mean we will are always able to accommodate the weaker ones around us, but it does mean that we should always try.  At least at church, it is should be the Spirit that counts the most.  

Do you see the implications for us?  Whereas it is natural and needful to point out what we can or can’t accept, Paul’s logic of acceptance urges us to go a step further. He tells us to dwell upon who we should accept because God has accepted us. If we want to glorify God in the church, we will go beyond arguing over what is right or wrong and become a people working together toward acceptance in Christ. 

In a scene from the movie Ironweed, the characters played by Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep stumble across an old Eskimo woman lying in the snow, probably drunk.  Besotted themselves, the two debate what they should do about her.  “Is she drunk or bum?” asks Nicholson.  “Just a bum.  Been one all her life.”  “And before that?”  “She was a whore in Alaska.”  “She hasn’t been a whore all her life. Before that?”  “I dunno.  Just a kid, I guess.”  “Well, a little kid’s something.  It’s not a bum and it’s not a whore.  It’s something.  Let’s take her in.”3  The two vagrants finally saw this Eskimo as God sees us all: “They are someone. I’ll take them in.”  

Maybe the example’s a bit extreme, but you get the message: “Accept each other, as Jesus Christ accepted you.”   This is how all Christian fellowship begins and ends.  Amen.

1 Barbara Lemmel, in Christian Century Magazine, January 6-13, 1999, p. 15.
2 All Biblical quotes from the New Living Translation, (Wheaton Illinois, Tyndale House Publishers, 1996)

3 As told by Philip Yancy in, What’s So Amazing About Grace, (Grand Rapids, Michagin: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997, p. 280.