Preached November 21, 2021, at Brookfield Baptist Church for their 159th anniversary service.
Let me read to you a text of hope for our troubled times. It is a vision of Ezekiel’s from Ezekiel chapter 37:1-14:
37 The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’” 7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army. 11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’” (NIV)
God bless the reading of his word.
I remember my first day as a lead pastor. This was after several months of applying around, resume after resume, each church turning me down – they did not want to take on a doctoral student, they also wanted someone with more experience.
Life then was so uncertain back then. I was just beginning my dissertation for my doctorate at the University of Toronto. My contract as a coordinator of a drop-in center for those who faced homelessness and poverty in downtown Toronto had ended due to the funding cuts to social programs in Toronto. My wife and I just had our second child, Emerson, a few months prior. We had just bought a home and now were realizing we might have to sell it. My contract as an intern for church planting in another Baptist denomination had come to an unfortunate end: the denominational leaders found out that I was in favor of women in ministry, and for this Baptist denomination, such a belief was beyond the pale. I had a meeting with a denominational leader, a card-carrying fundamentalist, who gave me an ultimatum: he put on no uncertain terms that the belief that men lead (and are the only ones that can be pastors) and women submit – this conviction was for him and the denomination essential to the Gospel, and that meant for me that I had to either shut up or have my funding as a church planter cut. I decided I could not in good conscience continue. It was hard leaving the denomination that my grandfather was a founding pastor of. When you have to leave the church family you were raised in, it feels like you are leaving Christianity itself, since it is the only Christianity you know. When you are literally threatened and attacked by your church family, the one that raised you, attacked over the beliefs you feel are biblical, if you have ever had a similar interaction with some of your Christian friends, it can make you wonder, does the church have a future? If it does, is it a future with me in it?
So, in all the uncertainty, a Canadian Baptist church, the 120 year old First Baptist of Sudbury hired me. They wanted a young pastor. First Baptist Church of Sudbury was a little church four hours north of Toronto, a place I had only visited once when I was in high school in the winter, a place that gets down to minus 40 in the winter, and I wondered how any human being could live here. It was this church that voted to hire me.
All of that is to say, I remember walking into my office to see that the interim pastor had left a report on my desk. It was a church growth flow church, charting the birth of a church, the peak years of a church, and then qualities and stages that indicate decline, and finally twilight and death. There was a big red circle around the word death.
This was a church, as I found, that had experienced over a decade of turmoil to no fault of its own. Two pastors one after the other had really done a lot of damage to the church. One ran off with the wife of one of the deacons. The other was hired and did not tell the church he was going through a bitter divorce with his wife and then divided the church. I remember that summer the church attendance was less than a dozen people.
It was not a very encouraging first day as I reflected how we just moved my family 400 kilometers away to a small church, all of which were twice and sometimes three times my age. Does this church have a future? Does the church have a future?
This is a question I think many are asking especially in this time of the aftermath of the Pandemic. Financially the pandemic has rocked Canada: the Toronto Star has estimated that pandemic has costed Canadians 1.5 billion dollars of every day of the pandemic. For the United States, the total cost to date is estimated to be over 16 trillion dollars. People are worried whether there will be enough to go around.
Yet, it is the human cost that is most important. According to the most recent numbers on John Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center, there has been 256 million reported cases globally and there has been 5.1 million deaths attributed to the virus. Canada has seen 29 000 deaths. We call that being fortunate, but it is really so, so tragic. Many of these individuals have been seniors in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. But make no mistake: this virus is unpredictably deadly. I heard that a classmate of mine a few months ago, a woman my age with a child, got the virus, went to bed, and did not wake up.
For many, it has been the emotional toll that people have felt the most: feelings of isolation, burn out, anxiety. Churches have felt this as their pastors have been over worked to put services online and adapt to new health standards. All our churches have felt distant from members of the community but also feeling obstructed from doing ministry in the wider community.
As we look out at a post-pandemic world, as it moves to endemic stage, while we are still facing waves and new variants, it feels like we are surveying the wreckage. It feels like we are the survivors of a battle.
In my reading of Scripture, recently I went through the book of the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel was a prophet and a priest that proclaimed messages and visions from God about 600 years before Christ. Ezekiel watched a foreign empire, Babylon, come and destroy his home. The Jewish armies were decimated by a cruel and brutal military superpower. The people then were brought into exile. Ezekiel went with them where he served as a priest and teacher to a small expatriate community, living in exile.
Such hopelessness and insecurity can make our own situation seem so insignificant, but then again, we too are feeling a sense of dislocation, insecurity, and uncertainty, and when we come to Scripture, the Spirit of God animates these ancient words to say something to us today, something we need to hear.
It is in this context that Ezekiel has a vision of the aftermath of a battlefield, filled with corpses, dry bones, and it is a vision that is symbolic as it explains, but it names the spiritual reality that God’s people were in: a state of feeling defeated.
Yet, the spirit of God is not. God says to Ezekiel: Can these bones live? And Ezekiel replies in the most human way he can: “I don’t know. I don’t know the future. But you God do know.”
And he is given this vision: he sees the dry bones being raised up, the breath of God, the Spirit of life that animated all humanity and all living things in creation, this breath now is causing death to be reversed, a new creation.
God says of these bones that they are the house of Israel. They are God’s people who have said, “Our strength is gone, our hope feels lost. We feel cut off and separated.”
And God says to them, “I will restore you. I will bring you home. I will put my spirit in you and renew you.” God is saying this to us today, I believe.
It can feel like the church in Canada has lost a battle or just barely is scrapping by. So many of us have sent the past year stressed and anxious, our bones feel dried up, our hope feels lost.
And yet, the Spirit of God has not been defeated. God is still God, the Lord Almighty, the God of all possibilities, the God whose plans are always good, the God whose promises will not be thwarted.
Our God’s will and plan and promise is to bring salvation, forgiveness, healing, life, love, and liberation to all people – these have not been stopped for they cannot be stopped: God’s kingdom is still coming so that earth will one day be as it is in heaven.
And we know this definitely because this vision here is a prefigure of what happens to Jesus, God’s son, the messiah. For when the forces of darkness, of death and despair came against Jesus, Jesus gave himself up as a ransom to liberate us from these things, dying on a cross, a god-forsaken death. God became a cursed corpse. By this we know God is with us in our darkness moments. And in that time of hopelessness, in the time that it seems like the plan of God was truly foiled, that Jesus’ claims to being the messiah were disproven, on the third day the tomb was found empty; Jesus is risen from the grave by the Spirit.
As we celebrate where we have come today as a church, we must remember that we stand on the hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are his body as the church, and the body of Christ, while it was bruised, beaten, and crucified, the Spirit raised this body to new life.
This is our hope for a time that has seen such death. This is our hope in a time that has seen such sadness. We have the hope of Jesus.
The church is founded on this truth, and we cannot forget this. We live because Jesus is Lord.
The same Spirit that raised Jesus is the same Spirit that came on the first disciples to begin the church at Pentecost. It is the same Spirit that moved the first Baptists in Nova Scotia, prophets is like Henry Alline, to speak God’s word boldly, to live God’s gospel courageously, even in the face of all that has gone wrong in this world. It is the same Spirit that moved that is alive with us today.
As we remember God’s faithfulness to our churches in the past, and ask the question what does the future have in store? Our question sounds very similar to what God said to Ezekiel, and our answer must be the same:
O Lord God, you know. We trust you and your way. You know because you are sovereign. You know because you are good. You know because you have made promises you keep, plans that will come true.
These are words I know I needed to hear when I first started pastoring. Because the fact is many of us have convinced ourselves that we can control the future, that we can predict it and change it by our power and skill. I thought that pastoring. Looking at that depressing church growth document all those years ago in my office, I thought to myself: I can change that. I thought I could save the church.
I became obsessed over the next few years of starting programs and fundraisers and advertisements. Many of these did not have much effect (at best people from other larger churches came to these programs, used them like a free service and continued attending their own churches), and after two years of it, I just found myself burnt out and wanting to quit.
It was in that moment that I realized I don’t know what the future of this church will be. Only God knows. But what I do know is that I must be faithful to live what God is calling the church to be.
The church was located in the town of Garson. The church relocated out there in the 70’s hoping that this new suburb would be the next up and coming neighborhood. The reality was the city zoned it to be where the poor of the city were sent: supplemented income housing was built on all sides of the church. Many of the stores had graffiti on it. You would very often see police cruisers making stops.
One day a guy called and wanted a ride to church. He lived in a one room apartment around the corner from me, and as I got to know him, he faced a lot of mental health challenges. He had attended other churches that frankly saw him as a burden and ignored him. Other churches wanted to grow the church by attracting easier, and I should say, richer sheep.
This was the person God had given us, our family of faith, so we did our best, and I soon found he had a lot of friends. I put out a sign in his building that if anyone needed a ride to the foodbank on a Tuesday afternoon, I would drive them to the other end of town and have coffee with them after.
Many would ask me, “Are you just being nice to me to get me to come to your church?” And I would say emphatically: “While I strongly believe that a community of faith and weekly worship is important to our spirituality, I will always be there to help you, even if you never set foot in our church.”
I realized in those experiences that if the church is to have a future, it will be by taking up our crosses in a new way. The church must die to self: it must lay to rest its obsession with money that causes it to see the poor as worthless; it must lay to rest its expectations of what a successful Christian life is, which causes so many to feel they are not worthy to be in the family of God: the mentally ill, those who face addictions, those whose love lives are messy and complicated, those who are in the sexual minority. The church must take up its cross in a new way, embracing the discomfort the Spirit is calling us into.
It was in those moments that I know I saw the church, what it can truly me, a place where th outcasts was welcomed, a family of misfits. Let’s face it: we all are seeing very pointed reminders of the failures of the church today: racism and residential schools, stories of bigotry and abuse, or just the stories of apathy and irrelevance where churches just don’t actually care about doing what is right or sharing God’s love.
One elderly lady in my church said to me, “Pastor, I don’t know what to do with some of these people.” And I said to her, “I get it, I don’t know how to handle some of these issues either, but at the end of the day, a lot of these individuals are people without parents. I know you know how to be that.” So, the ladies of our church started cooking meals and putting them in Tupperware containers to give out. We organized community meals for people in the common area of the apartment building. It was the old folks of the congregation that said, “We know we need to be open minded, because we know what happened when we weren’t.”
It was pastoring this little church that renewed my confidence in the church: the church that is not a building, but a community of disciples, imperfect but willing to bare one another’s burdens, living like a family, being family to those that have no family.
It is amazing what can happen when the church is ready to take up its cross.
And it must be said, if we want to see the reality of resurrection, the Spirit moving and breaking in and causing new life, it will only happen, when a church is ready take up the cross, to sacrifice all that it is and even can be.
I emphasize here “can be” because so often we go out on mission for the purpose of the “future of the church,” but that really means we just want to keep what is ours. And when we do that, we will ignore those who don’t matter to our budget, our building maintenance, our membership lists. We will be vulnerable to politicians that promise power to the church. We will make the church and its mission about us.
While the future offers no guarantees – I know I constantly worried: “Will we have enough money to pay the bills? Will we have to amalgamate with another church?” – the promise of God in this passage is that God will do wonderful things, surprising things, in the valleys of dry bones.
I had a bunch of stories I wanted to tell, but here is just one: In ministering in Sudbury, I came across a young man, who also lived in the low-income housing development.
Early twenties, a poor kid, as I got to know him, he had endured the worst in this world: terrible abuse, such that just to talk with him, he was deeply erratic. It did not take long in his presence to know his soul was in deep chaos: that lethal mix of hatred and hurt.
I would come by his apartment from time to time to check on him. He was on welfare, but there was a strong possibility that it would run out, so he was looking for a job. He was about the same height as me, so I gave him some of my dress clothes. We practiced interviews. He applied around all over the place. Each time, employers would just hear how he talked, how it was hard to hold down a conversation with him and go with someone else. Didn’t matter he was willing and able. As he applied here and there, the more downcast he got.
One day, I did rounds around the apartments asking if anyone needed a ride to the food bank. I would take them as per my Tuesday noontime routine. I knocked on his door, and he answered, a bit dishevelled. I figured he was just getting up. He decided to come along to the food bank that day, even though he did not need anything.
I turned to him in the car and gave him a Jesus Calling devotional. I had gotten a bulk order of these things, figuring this was an easy way for some of the people, who were not strong readers that I ministered to, could nevertheless hear an uplifting Scripture spoken over them on a daily basis.
While the one guy went in, this young man turned to me and said, Spencer, I was sitting in my room thinking I got nothing to live for. I have no peace in my life. I was ready to end it when you knocked at the door.
I prayed with him, and I suggested, let’s see what words of encouragement the devotional he had in his hand had to offer. Turns out that day, the topic was scriptures relating to finding peace in life.
He did a stint in the hospital. After he got out I met up with him again. He seemed to be in a bad state of mind. I learned that previous to me meeting him, he had committed a crime, which he was going to be sentenced for. The possibility was weighing heavily on him. I asked him about what he believed in, whether he trusted God’s love and forgiveness in all this.
He turned to me and said that he admitted his mind is so erratic, so faulty, he resolved at some point to just stop believing anything. He figured his brain is just so unreliable, there isn’t any point to believing in anything. He told me he felt ashamed about all the ideas that would get him worked up. So, one day he just decided he would stop believing in anything.
I tried to offer some words of encouragement, but I was taken back. How do you get someone to believe in Jesus, when they don’t even think they are capable of believing anything?
I went home that day particularly distraught. I remember praying, “God how can a person like that be reached? How could a person like that be discipled? God you’ve got to reach this person, but if the Gospel means anything, it has to mean something to a person like that. The Gospel is good news to everyone, especially a desperate, troubled young man, who needs hope in his life.”
My prayers for the next little while took on a tone of frustration and disappointment.
A little while later, I came by his apartment. I found him in the apartment’s communal kitchen. He turned to me. “Spencer, I was sitting in my apartment. I was ready to end it all. I just felt so worthless. But then he showed up.”
“Who showed up?” I asked. He just pointed upward. In that dark moment, he heard a distinct voice say to him, “Your life is worth something to me.”
“Spencer, I don’t know what I am, but I know I ain’t an atheist anymore.”
God surprised me that day. God surprises us most often when we are ready to be the Gospel for the broken and when we are willing to be broken for the Gospel.
It is a beautiful irony that church growth did not happen when I obsessed about growing the church. The church started growing when we resolved to be there for those in need in our communities even if it could cost us “the church” as we know it.
The church will only find itself when it is ready to die to self. It will only rise when it is willing to dwell in the valleys of dry bones.
As we celebrate today, Brookfield Baptist Church, where we have come from, where we are now, where we hope to go. Remember we are the body of Christ: We live in this world crucified and only in and through this, we can see moments of resurrection.
God of hope and new life, we praise you that you are faithful. You have been faithful through the years in this church, and so we trust you with our present and future.
Lord, we do not know what the future holds. And we have seen so much discouragement these days.
Lord, teach us in new ways to trust your Spirit. Inspire us in new ways to take up your cross.
Empty us into this world, so that we can be with those who need to hear about you.
Permit us to see moments of resurrection, moments of your kingdom come.
We pray longing for the salvation of all people, the restoration of all things.
These things we pray in your name. Amen.
What do you want to be known for?
Interestingly you can take courses online on how to be known for things. They are called personal branding courses. They are marketed to business people, and the theory is just as a company should be known for a motto and a certain style, so you should be too. The course essentially gets people to think in simple terms:
Because I am x, I am known for doing y. Or Since I do y, I am x. Answer that yourself. Think about it.
What do you want to be known for? What does First Baptist want to be known for? It is something I have thought about this week.
A few people have asked me, “Now that it is your last sermon, you get to say whatever you want, because you are leaving.” Like I can now air out a list of grievances that I have kept to myself for five years, like this is Seinfeld’s Festivus: “I got a lot of problems with you people and now you’re gonna hear about it.” [Spoken in Jerry Stiller’s voice, of course].
I have to admit, I really don’t have grievances or axes to grind or anything of that sort.
As I looked through the scriptures, I came to 1 Cor. 2, which actually had Paul reporting to the Corinthians what he resolved to do and be when he was with them, and therefore, I think, what he wanted to be known for.
I think it is the right answer. It is the answer that we should all strive for. He writes:
“I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” – 1 Cor. 2:2
I have resolved to know nothing, except Jesus Christ and him crucified. Paul wants above all else to be known for the Gospel. I do not want my last sermon to be about me (although I will tell a story or two). As I planned out my final sermon, I have resolved to center it on the most important thing I can be about and First Baptist can be about: who Jesus is, the Gospel.
The Gospel is our salvation, our purpose, our unity, our joy and hope.
1. The Gospel is Our Salvation
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4: 7-10)
“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel,” (2 Tim. 2:8)
I admit, 1 John 4 is probably my favourite chapter in the Bible. I had to mention it on my last sermon! God is love because God was found in the person and work of Jesus. That is our Gospel.
Our Gospel is that God is love. God is our creator. He made the world out of his generosity. He has made every human being in his image and likeness, as his children even though we, as prodigal sons and daughters, have failed to realize him as our Father.
We worship a God that made us, loves us, and will not see any of his creation be lost. We do not worship a God that only loves some of his creation or only seeks to save some of his creation, but a God the loves perfectly without limitation.
We know God is love because God is a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, an eternal community of love in one being. Before the world began, before creation and sin, God is love.
God came in Jesus Christ, in human form, in sinful flesh, to show the loving solidarity of God with all sinful humanity, and the restoration of God’s people in him.
God in Jesus Christ died on a cross, died a cursed death, the death of a sinner for all sinners, to show us sinners, he has died our death. It is the mystery of our faith that constantly baffles me: God in Christ loved us more than his very bodily self. God is that kind of self-less love.
God our Father raised Jesus from the dead to show a love that is victorious and powerful. As Jesus has taken on our flesh, now in Jesus, we all have the hope that the very worst of this world, the very things that have stolen us away from his love – these things do not have the final say.
As my friend, Brad Jersak was saying this week, “God is love. God is not love but also just or holy or wrathful. God is love period.”
God’s love is holy because it is pure. God is infinite because his love is immeasurable. God’s love is powerful because it is unfailing. God’s love is just because he is in equal measure merciful. God’s love is capable of anger because God’s love passionately cries out to a world gone astray, hoping that we would change and come back to him.
We understand all of God through Jesus. We understand all of God through Jesus’ cross. If there is an idea of God that contradicts the display of a God who would willing give up his very life for us because of his great love for us, we simply have departed from the God of the Gospel.
God’s love is not simple or sentimental, it is complex and mysterious, surprising even uncomfortable, but it always comes back to love. It is always understood through love.
If we can define God in any way other than love, as I have found, we will inevitably find ourselves without a Gospel that offers salvation to us sinners.
We stand on the Gospel that God is love. If God is not a God of consistently personal, perfect, and powerful love, we simply do not have a Gospel. Period.
One pastor told me that preaching is the fine art of being a broken record. If I have been a broken record these past five years, I have also learned that this truth is so counter-intuitive to our limited, sin-soaked minds, that we have to constantly remember it, re-hear it, re-tell it, and re-live it.
Otherwise we simply forget it. Never forget this, First Baptist Church.
2. The Gospel is Our Purpose
“To live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Phil. 1:21).
The Apostle Paul writes this to the Philippians saying life for him is serving Jesus, walking with Jesus, being willing to die for Jesus, death being nothing in comparison to having Jesus.
When you know what you are about, you have purpose, nothing else matters.
Funny story: I know a person that put that as their high school year book blurb, and the school called the police because they were worried he was suicidal.
We ended up going to college together. He is now a pastor in BC. He is not suicidal, he just believes in something this world does not understand. Although he probably has gone a little nuts since he has a big batch of kids like I do. As long as I have known him, he has lived with purpose.
When we rest in Jesus Christ, when we draw close to him, when we resolve to know nothing but his Gospel, we are captivated by the beauty of what he is, and we want to live that love out to others. That is our purpose: We live to see what the Gospel can do in us and others. That is what gets me up in the morning (other than screaming babies).
Sharing the Gospel can take on implicit and explicit ways. I have gotten to share the Gospel on Sunday mornings, at weddings, at funerals, in times of blessing and in times of tragedy. I have gotten to share the Gospel over coffee and over board games, on the street and in my office. I am always surprised at when people say they are reluctant to share their faith since they are worried about a negative reaction. When we set out to live and speak good news for others, saying and doing something good to them and for them – without an agenda of trying to force them to become a Christian or come to our church or believe this or that, but simply being there for them, to listen, to give hope, and share ourselves, my experience has been overwhelming positive.
Yes, a lot say no thanks. A lot say they want to but there is no follow through. It does require patience.
I think of our McCourt meals and taking people to the food bank on Tuesdays. This simple an act of service and fellowship has openned doors for me to sit and pray with dozens of people, many of whom as shut ins are too sick to come to church, but are precisely the kind of people that God has a special heart for. Or others are people that face terrible mental illness. Many times I have gotten the privilege to be an ambassador of Christ to be the first person that sees them as a person of value and worth, and when they ask, “why do you do this for people?” I get to tell them why.
Sometimes sharing the Gospel is quite explicit and decisive, other times it is a simple act of kindness or service.
Or it can be planting a community garden to promote community and food healthy food in our community. That lead to Alexander Kuthy to start coming here. Remember Alex? He sadly passed away a little while ago, but he shared his testimony with us. An irreligious man that hated the church growing up because a priest tried to sexually assault him. He lived most of his life completely unconcerned with God until he had an accident and he said, “All of a sudden I was aware that I needed God.” Alex would stroll into my office and chat with me. In five years, I can probably count on my one hand how many appointments I had at my office that were actually booked in advance. That’s just fine, my life is far more interesting for it. Alex lived with a new purpose. You saw that in him. He said he lived all his life for himself, now he was making up time living for God. He believed in devoting his life to “spreading peace” as he said it often.
I hope everyone goes home, reads some scripture, meditates, and prays upon it, and asked themselves, “What is my purpose? Is my purpose living the Gospel, completely without reservation? Is my reason for being alive walking in God’s love, worshiping in God’s love, showing others God’s love?”
If it is and the person next to you agrees, that is the church, brothers and sisters. That is what we are doing here together.
3. The Gospel is Our Unity
“If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9)
It is such a simple phrase. Jesus is lord, and salvation is in trusting that work of the resurrection. Jesus is our unity. We so often make it Jesus plus a hold lot of other stuff, or Jesus can only mean the way I relate to Jesus.
I have spoken before that I was raised with a very fundamentalist faith. My grandfather was a fundamentalist Baptist pastor, and that is what formed me growing up. Fundamentalism is a lot of things. While many come by it sincerely, as I did, at its very worst, it is an arrogance that all my thoughts and interpretations are the right and infallible ones. It is often obsessed with control and certainty and simple pat answers; that affective sense of certainty in essence shields the reality that since most fundamentalists do not believe God loves all people perfectly, there is a deep sense that God might actually not love them either, unless they do and think a certain way. It is also oddly then obsessed with very specific and convoluted doctrines, whether about creation, the Bible, the atonement, how Jesus will return, you name it, and perfectionist behavior, usually obsessed with sexuality above any other sin. Each doctrine or behavior is then turned into a litmus test of who is truly a Christian and who is not, disregarding the historic creeds of our faith and that our communities must embody grace. It also sees everyone who believes differently and acts differently as dumb, delusional, or dangerous.
I know this not because I look down on fundamentalists, but because I used to think that way. I really did not know any other way to be honest.
I have learned the simple biblical truth that, as James McClendon has put it, “Fundamentalism just isn’t fundamental enough.”
When I came to First Baptist, I did see something different. First Baptist, like many other historic First Baptist Churches in North America, has a long history, enduring all the movements over the last century. Some of our members have been in this church for over 50 years. It has learned to endure diversity. Many of the First Baptist Church family when I came had lived together as a community for so many years they just resolved to keep being a family together, no matter what.
Being committed to being historically Baptist we have upheld the liberty of the conscience of members of this church to interpret the Bible for ourselves in community as our denomination on the whole upholds that our churches are autonomous yet partner together for the Gospel.
For the last five years I have marveled at just how diverse First Baptist is, the different faith backgrounds and experiences, the different doctrines and ideas of faith and how they have functioned in people’s lives, and the sincere commitments to keep learning the Bible together.
That is rare. It is difficult to live out, but it is refreshing in this divided world we live in.
It has been oddly refreshing to lead a Bible study hearing all these perspectives come out, and sometimes quite heatedly, but then have a recognition that we are all sincerely trying to follow Jesus together, and he is our unity.
First Baptist is a diverse place, we all don’t think the same, and we have to reckon with all our diverse backgrounds and experiences and ideas, whether on theology, politics, or on what color the carpet should be.
But if Jesus is our unity, we are bound by blood as family.
As we do this within our walls, we have a vital witness outside our walls. The Gospel has been our unity with all the other churches here in Garson and Coniston. I don’t think you realize the high regard we are held in by the other churches. And it has been an honor working with so many excellent pastors and priests.
One of the most powerful moments in my years here was when we gathered for worship with St. John’s, Trinity United, and the Anglican churches.
I remember the second ecumenical service I participated in here, we went to St. John’s. That year the liturgy called for each person to pair off with a person from another church, and come to a font of water, dip your fingers in it and make the sign of the cross over the other person’s head, asking forgiveness for the sins we have done against each other.
I have never seen the Spirit move so powerfully. People broke down crying in repentance and hugged right there.
That moment was not of ourselves. That was the Spirit moving as we, Christians from very diverse traditions, simply came together to worship Jesus.
The Gospel, the simple Gospel, is our unity. Nothing else should be or can be.
4. The Gospel is Our Hope
“But Christ, as the Son, is in charge of God’s entire house. And we are God’s house, if we keep our courage and remain confident in our hope in Christ.” (Heb. 3:6)
When you are able to be there and see our God working. It is the best thing in the world.
While pastoring can be quite difficult, it is propelled along by the conviction that God never gives up hope on people and neither do we.
One more story: Some of you remember Jered. He does not live around here anymore. A troubled young man, who had been in and out of prison, with so much chaos in him you could immediately tell just from hearing him talk.
The chaos and pain with him was so bad, he once told me he resolved to stop believing in anything because his mind was so unreliable he just had had enough. If you can imagine living like that and being at that point?
I remember coming home that day shook-up by his words. “How can the Gospel reach someone that unstable?” I thought. How can our Gospel mean anything if it can’t bring hope to someone like him?
A few days later, I remember seeing him at the residence. He came up to me: “Spencer, I had a really difficult night. I was in a really dark place…Then he showed up.”
“Who?” I asked. Jered just pointed upwards. “He did. I can’t be an atheist anymore,” he said. God showed up for him in a time of need, far beyond what I or anyone is capable of. In that dark moment God appeared and told him he had worth and that he was loved and that there was hope.
That is the hope of our faith. God does not give up on people. He has not given up on me; he has not given up hope on you; therefore he will not give up hope on anyone. He simply will not give up on this broken world.
Because of this – this good news – we live with purpose, with unity, with joy and hope.
Let us pray…
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13)
We have all heard the Christmas story before.
The Christmas story is the story of a baby born miraculously and mysteriously to a virgin mother.
About a nobody girl named Mary, who saw the announcement that she would be the mother of the messiah to be the greatest privilege of her life, despite its meaning she would be ostracized perhaps the rest of her life, since she was not married
It is the story about a good and merciful man, named joseph, who when he heard that his fiancé was pregnant and he was not the father, he could have subjected her to disgrace and even had her stoned in the culture, but moved with compassion, simple was going to dissolve the marriage quietly.
A man that was reassured by an angel to marry the woman, and that he would be the legal father of the savior of the world.
It is a story set to the back drop of God’s people conquered and oppressed by a massive empire, ruled a tyranny Emperor who claimed himself to be the Son of God.
It about this little unlikely family having to travel miles through storm and sand to the town of Bethlehem to be counted by order of the Emperor Augustus.
It is a story about this family who upon returning to their own hometown found that no one wanted to give them shelter for the night. No family wanted them.
It is a story about the king of heaven being born in the muck and mire of a barn.
It is a story about good news announced by angelic hosts to lowly shepherds, forgotten in the wilderness, tending their sheep.
It is a story about wisemen following stars, fooling a local corrupt ruler and coming to worship the messiah child with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
It is a story about an escape in the night as Herod sent out guards to kill the children of Jesus’ age, trying to stop the potential usurper.
And so, this is a story about miracles and the messiah, about faithful servants and faithful spouses, unplanned pregnancies and ancient prophecies; it is about shepherds and tyrants, about journey and escape, about humility and royalty, oppression and hope.
This story is the first Christmas. It is the story. It is the most important story. It is the story of all our salvation. Our salvation began to be accomplished in history on that day, in that stable, in that dirty manger, to that poor Middle-eastern couple, two thousand years ago.
It is the truth that God is now with us: the incarnation. The infinite God dwelling with us mortals.
It is the truth about God’s rule. The messiah Jesus shows how God rules: he chooses the lowly; he chooses the poor; he chooses the unworthy, the forgotten, the unlikely. He prefers them to the powerful, the rich, the proud, and the oppressor.
It is the truth about forgiveness. Jesus wasn’t just the king of the righteous. He didn’t just love the deserving. He also loved sinners. In fact, he died for the people trying to kill him. He died for Emperor just as much as the shepherds. He died for King Herod just as much as the wise men. He died for the criminal and the terrorist just as much as he died for you and me.
The Christmas story is the truth about God’s fundamental character of love and compassion, about God being born in our form, identifying with our plight, binding himself to our fate, all to say that nothing can separate us from his love.
Immanuel: God is with us. He is not against us, he is for us. He gave us his son. He gave us himself.
It is also a difficult story to believe, too isn’t it? We live in a world of skepticism. It seems that usually about this time every year someone publishes an article, proclaiming their modern brilliance at just how unbelievable the Christmas story is.
Angels don’t exist. Miracles don’t happen. Virgins don’t have babies. Stars don’t give travelers directions. Gods don’t reveal themselves. It is simply an unbelievable story.
It’s preposterous; it’s impractical; it’s too spectacular; it’s too amazing. Things like this just don’t happen.
But our culture’s skepticism over the things of God – whether it is the possibly of miracles or the fact that God could indeed reveal himself – pays a high price.
Skepticism against the Christmas story is skepticism against hope itself.
We live in an apathetic age.
Wars can’t be stopped. Poverty can’t be solved. Politicians always lie. Life is always unfair. Marriages never work. Churches never help. God isn’t there.
There is no life after death, and ultimate no reason for life before it.
Right and wrong, good and evil, hope and tragedy, these are just creations of the human imagination with no real anchor in reality.
The world is not getting better. In fact, it is getting worse and to be honest, most people would think we are not worth saving.
Forgiveness? Hope? Love? Goodness? It’s preposterous; it’s impractical; it’s too spectacular; it’s too amazing.
It is unbelievable.
Perhaps the Apostles passed along this story not because they were primitive, but because they were just like us.
They lived in a skeptical age. Tyrants stayed powerful; peasants stayed poor; lepers stayed sick; women and slaves stayed property; the dead stayed in the grave; and there is nothing new under the sun.
…Until Jesus showed up. Perhaps the reason the Apostles passed along this Christmas story is precisely because it was unbelievable. Unbelievable yet true.
This is a watershed moment in history, a game-changer, a paradigm-shifter, an epiphany, an event.
God showed up. Hope showed up. Goodness and mercy and forgiveness showed up. Nothing like this had ever happened in their time. Nothing like it before or after. Prophets had foretold this, but who could expect it happening in this way?
Perhaps this story is true in all its remarkable, exceptional, unbelievable, beauty.
We can ask, just like Mary, “How is this possible?” And the angel’s words are just as true today as they were two thousand years ago: With God all things are possible.
With God all things are possible.
If we grant that, this story starts making sense.
Good does triumph over evil. Love does triumph over hate. Forgiveness does triumph over hurt. Peace does triumph over violence. Faith does triumph over idolatry. Hope does triumph over despair.
These truths are not the delusions of us human bi-pedal ape-species with an overgrown neo-cortex.
The deepest longings of the human heart, the groaning of the soul for a world without hunger, sickness, sin, death, and despair – as unrealistic as that sounds – that yearning knows this story is true the same way our thirsty tongues know that water exists.
Its real. Its possible. It is out there. It is here: in Jesus.
The only left to do with this story, when we are done pondering it and puzzling is to trust it.
Can you tonight trust this unbelievable story? Can you trust that with God all things are possible?
Can you trust that your life is not just there without value, but it is a gift, it was planned and made by a God that sees you as his child?
Can you trust that the wrong in your life, the sins we have committed that no excuse can defend has been forgiven by a God that knows you better than you know yourself and sees with eyes of perfect mercy?
Can you trust that God has come into history, has shown us the way, has died for our sins, and conquered the grave?
Can you trust that God can set right all that has gone wrong as we invite him to renew our hearts, our minds, our souls and strength, our relationships, our job and family, our past and future, our communities and our country?
Can you trust that this Christmas story about God’s miraculous power, his unlimited compassion, his surprising solidarity, can be shown to be true this night just as much as it did then? In you, in the person next to you, in this church, in this town.
We give gifts at Christmas time as a sign of God’s generosity, but do we look forward to God’s gifts to us each Christmas?
Do we look for the gift of renewed spirits?
Do we look for the gift of transformed hearts?
Do we look for the gift of forgiveness of past hurts?
Do we look for the gift of reconciled relationships?
Of new freedom from guilt and shame, from hurt and hatred, from addiction and despair, from materialism and apathy.
What gifts are we going to see given from God’s spirit this Christmas.
Perhaps it will be like what happened to Nelson Mandela (just one story I read about this week about how the truth of Christmas changed someone in remarkable ways). In South Africa where Blacks were segregated off from the privileged of White society, Mandela as a young man advocated armed uprising and was imprisoned for life in 1962.
In prison he faced all the things that would, by any worldly standard, destroy hope, love, joy and peace in any man’s soul. He was beaten by the guards. He recount one day being forced to dig a pit that the guards taunted him saying it would be his own grave. As he dug, they peed on him and spat on him. The prison was so dirty he contracted tuberculosis.
Conditions like that fester the heart not just the body, but the miracle of Christmas reached him. Mandela recovered his Christian faith in prison, and was moved with hope towards a better tomorrow, with love and forgiveness towards even his guards that beat him.
In a sermon he gave later in life, he spoke about the hope he gained knowing that the messiah was born an outcast like him. This unbelievable Christmas story, the story that we recite and remember till it we often take it for granted, restored a man’s heart in one of the darkest of places.
Christ’s name is Immanuel: God with us. God was with the shepherd, with Mary, with Joseph, with the oppressed Israeli people, and so, also with Nelson Mendela.
After 26 years in prison, campaigns to have him pardoned succeeded, and Mandela went from prison to the presidential campaign, running to become president and end apartheid, not through violence but through reconciliation.
He won and he even had the guard that beat him from prison, whom he reconnected with and forgave, at his inauguration, a guest of honor.
Its an unbelievable story isn’t it?
How will God work something unbelievable in you tonight?
We could say that our lives aren’t as fantastic as Mendel’s, but then again, if we say that, we would be selling ourselves and our God short.
You see, a story about angels and a virgin giving birth and about a God found in the form of a baby might be unbelievable, but we Christians take that as part and parcel of what our unbelievable God does.
There is a saying that goes if you are in for a pound, you might as well put in a penny.
If we know that God has done the miraculous, can we trust him now with the mundane?
If we know that God has given us life, can we trust him with our finances and family?
If we know that God has atoned for all sin, can we trust him with our fears and failures?
If we know that God has conquered the grave, can we trust him with the worries of tomorrow?
If we know our God is a God that can do all things, that he has already accomplished everything, perhaps can you trust him with something small now. Let’s do something small right now. Something small but still significant.
Let’s have a moment of silence and stillness. We don’t get enough of those in this busy season. Have a moment right now to say to God whatever you need to say or to listen to God and hear whatever he as been trying to tell you, then we will pray together…
Living God, Father of our lord Jesus Christ.
May the worship we have shared this Christmas lead ro acts of service which transform people’s lives
May the carols we have sung this Christmas help others to sing, even in times of sadness.
May the gifts we exchange this Christmas deepen our spirit of giving throughout the year.
May the candles we have lit this Christmas remind us that you intend no one to live in darkness.
May the new people we have met this Christmas remind us that we meet you in our neighbors.
May the gathering together of family and friends this Christmas make us appreciate anew the gift of love.
May these unbelievable stories we have told again this Christmas be good news of great joy to us and all people, proclaimed on our lips and embodied in our lives.
May the ways you have come close to us this Christmas not be forgotten.
May we remember your unbelievable love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness – that you are our life, our light, and our salvation, this season and always, because of Jesus Christ our Lord.
[End prayer modified from Gathering for Worship: Patterns and Prayers for a Community of Disciples by the Baptist Union of Great Britain]
What follows is a meditation/eulogy that I wrote after my best friend, Craig Simmons, was tragically killed in a bus accident in Korea in June of 2010. The meditation moves between a tribute to his life and a meditation on the problem of evil, pushing back the trite answers of others around me as I grieved. Reader should not that the courtyard above is the one mentioned in the reflection below.
Much of Craig and I’s friendship was built on the basis of our love of sharing deep thoughts about life, faith, culture, justice and everything in between. In the spirit of such meaningful conversations, (which often took place late at night over a cup of coffee while procrastinating from writing papers due), I would like to share some thoughts and reflections.
I have been reading a theologian that has made an acute observation about the nature of humanity. We are, what he calls, “exo-centric” beings. See, to be an “exo-centric” being means that we find our meaning in something outside of ourselves, in those around us. This quality is exemplified by our belief in God as a triune being who exists as he is love and is loved by Son and Spirit and is reflected in us as God’s children. This term reflects the meaning of Craig’s friendship on me, and the reason why Craig was such a cherished individual for so many. There are very few people that can seriously be considered life-long friends, much less ones that you can say have formed you, given your life meaning, and thus, have become apart of you. Craig was one such friend.
I first met Craig at Heritage College. He and I were taking a class on spiritual disciplines where both of us, without the other knowing, had given up meat for 40 days. Apparently, Craig had gotten wind of this fact and strolled into my dorm room one evening giving his customary greeting, “How the heck are ya?” (the equivalent of Spock’s “live long and prosper” greeting), which was followed by a trip to Crabby Joe’s all-you-can-eat pasta event. “Since we cannot eat meat and it is almost the end of the 40 days, let us celebrate by eating like vegetarian kings!” he announced. I don’t remember the conversation that night (I remember it being memorable, I just can’t remember what!), but I do remember him packing down nearly five plates of food as I sat there in awe. I don’t think either of us truly understood or applied the meaning of Lent that night. Nevertheless, this occasion was one of many great outings in which we sampled the many flavors Cambridge had to offer, and what was sure to become a great friendship.
The next year we were room mates, one of about three years that I had the privilege of living with Craig, leading up to both of us getting married last summer, both of us in each others’ wedding parties. That was a summer I will not forget, a summer spent enjoying life to the fullest.
Being around Craig was like being in a sit com sometimes. The goofy uncanny situations and adventures he would get into was simply a spectacle to behold. Everyone who knew Craig knows that he was fashionably late for everything because of the bizarre jams that he would get into. The tales were often so well told that people were rarely angry at him for being late. One time we were late for church as the door to his old Chevy Cavalier would not shut. Insistent on hearing Pastor Ian Campbell’s sermon that week, and to generally overcome adversity anyhow, we drove to church in the winter weather, down the icy 401 at some deadly speed. Craig driving with one hand on the wheel, one hand holding the door shut. I would have held the door also, but I was too busy praying. We got there just in time for the sermon. I must admit, I have never been so proud to be thirty minutes late for church. Of course, Craig strolled in like he always did, as if he owed the place.
Craig was also notoriously bad for getting into situations that involved him putting his foot in his mouth. One time at future shop he walked up to a person trying to lift a box and said, “Can I give you a hand?” only to realize that the person only had one arm. Another time, we were at a student conference in St. Louis, and we sat at a table with other random students. One guy turned to Craig and asked, “where do you go to school?” Craig replied, “Oh, I go to Harvard…no just kidding, I go to a school that has more to it than just prestige. Where do you go?” Can you guess where? Lo and behold, at the table, as we went around asking where everyone was studying, we found that the entire table was composed of students from Harvard, Chicago, Cornell, and Princeton. What are the odds? Obviously not that high for a guy like Craig.
He was also late for everything because he was irresistibly friendly. Yet the strange thing was that, unlike most social butterflies, Craig was not a people-pleaser nor was he a conformist to every new fad or trend, in fact, quite the opposite. He was bold-headed in the extreme. However, it was that kind of transparency and honesty that made Craig so gregarious. When you spoke to Craig, you got Craig, uncut and commercial-free. From his work boots and torn-up Faulk football jersey to his car that sported the proud “Farmers Feed Cities” sticker in its window, Craig was who he was, no apologies. And if you were daring enough to be as authentic as he was, there was virtually no limit to the energy he was willing to pour into that relationship. Now when I say “authenticity” and “energy” I don’t mean writing “hey bff” on each other’s facebook walls. I mean debates over coffee that would last well into the night; I mean dorm-room wrestling matches; I mean spontaneous “Whopper Wednesday” Burger King runs after watching Smallville; I mean road trips across the continent and back; I mean campfire night conversations over Cuban cigars talking about ways to change the world; I mean all-you-can-eat rib fests that involved the purchasing of over-the counter-edemas the next day. That is the kind of one-of-a-kind friendship, I had with Craig, a friendship that has constituted who I am as a person.
Of course, now, he is gone. Without cause or warning, rhyme or reason, Craig walked across the street at a crosswalk and was hit by a careless bus driver. Just as his friendship was a significant presence when he was alive, so also is his death a ineffable absence. It is a strange thing to feel the loss of a friend. When I feel this sad absence, I am reminded of all the joyful memories I had with him. When I think of all the good times I had, I am reminded of the tragic absence. It is the absence that my future has been deprived of this one unique influence that has been the root of so many of my past experiences of happiness and meaning. In such a way that our futures are apart of our being, now, I feel incomplete now, in need of healing.
Craig was planning on attending the same college in the University of Toronto I am now at for my doctorate. In fact, on the day before his accident, he spoke on the phone, as he wished me a happy birthday, we shared each others mutual excitement about next year. Every time next semester when I sit and read a deep book as I sip a coffee in one of the beautiful courtyards of the university, I will miss Craig. I will recognize that that moment will not have been as good without him.
What encouragement is there that can comfort the loss of a friend that you anticipated growing old with, a friend that one day you thought you would be playing chess with in a park somewhere, sharing stories about each others’ grandchildren, reminiscing about the good old days? While I appreciate the efforts of some to give encouragements, observing the “good that has come out of this situation,” I think in order to truly miss someone, to love them and remember them for all that they were and still are, to do the work of mourning well for someone who has impacted your life in this way, is to say that there is no good that has come out of this situation, only despite this situation. No future will ever be as good of a future as it could have been with Craig alive. In the end, there was no good reason for him to have died. An inexplicable tragedy as such, is beyond explanation; it defies explanation; the answer to the question “why?” escapes us. It cannot be answered. It should not have one. It should not even exist to have an answer.
I for one see a deep incompatibility with the tragedy of this age and the existence of a loving God. I say this as a Christian, like Craig was. As this present reality is marred with inexplicable evil, I say that, in so much as he is perfect love that heals all pain, God has yet to fully “exist.” He has yet to arrive in our existence in the way he promised. He is yet to be “all in all.” We know that he is there, that he has shown his goodness before, and that he promises to again. But, where is he here, now? Up in heaven, far off, aloof? No. If we take serious our claims that the Holy Spirit is within us, as he was in Christ, the death of one of God’s children, for God, is nothing less than what he bore on the cross: death. Death but not defeat. God feels death with us, as there is nothing we experience that he does not know perfectly. God was with Craig in his darkest moments. Christ bore those dark moments. That is our God Immanuel. God did not forsake him. God longs for healing of this broken world with us.
And so, perhaps the most appropriate, the most biblical response is not “God is good, all the time” (although that is true), but is “How long O Lord?” with the expectation that as the God that died on the cross, that suffered but later was restored in resurrection, will restore all things by the power of a love stronger than death, and so also, our friend.
What answer is there to this question to an event that should not have an answer, an event that should not have been? The only appropriate answer is Craig’s own answer. One time, during one of our many discussions, Craig voiced his displeasure with the corporate prayers during church for healing in one instance. He pointed out that often we become obsessed with wanting everything to be okay now. We pray for comfort now, happiness now, and healing now. He remarked that we often become so fixated on having comfort now, that we forget that to truly need God is to realize the emptiness and frailness of the present life that does not have God fully in it now. Instead of praying for the delaying of death, that this “cup would pass,” the most appropriate response is trust in the promise of a future beyond death, faith in a future that causes one to live in radical contradiction to the present, and loving people beyond and despite what the present deems possible.
In asking God “How long?” is the bold faith that Craig was speaking about, a faith that demands God’s answering, but does not permit an answer yet, a faith that mourns, remembers, trusts, and ultimately, waits. As we asked God to heal Craig when he was hit by that careless bus, we expected God to heal him as the only answer that is appropriate to God being a God that is powerful and good. There was even a blog entitled “Fortune Favors the Bold” set up in expectation of his healing. What was the boldness that Craig stood for? The boldness that fortune will favour him by? What healing is there that we should expect? It is in the bold trust of a future that offers healing that is more than physical, greater than the physical. This is in the strict sense impossible, but is the only possibility that God’s perfect love for it to be such is possible. As we ask God, “How Long?” God responds, “Wait and see.” The impossible will be made possible.
And so, I mourn the loss of a friend, feeling an absence of a future that will not be the same without the life of my friend. However, as I wait, I also feel a new presence. It is the presence of a future breaking into the present, manifested in the promise. The presence of a new future, an impossible made possible future, promised by what God did despite the tragedy of Christ’s death, a future where God died yet rose again, who appears absent now but will one day be “all in all.”
There I will see Craig again. There I will reminisce with him about adventures past and, perhaps, play chess with him in the gardens of the heavenly city. There the wounds of a friendship lost will be no more. There God’s love, God himself, will be fully manifested. In this future, there I will stand with him, with my friend and with Christ also (resurrected but with the scars of the cross), all of us will stand there on that day together, healed.