Sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, M.O., on Mar. 29 2009.
1 John 4:7-21
I bring you greetings this morning from the Holmeswood Baptist Church where I serve as pastor. To be honest, being the fourth of 4 ministers who’ve come to your pulpit in the last month and batting cleanup for this lineup leaves me confused as to what role I’m to play today. Do I try to shine like my three colleagues have done, or do I try to make you appropriately glad your new minister is finally coming to join you? The four of us have come at your invitation to explore the future that awaits you in a few weeks as Jason and Christy and their son Jackson come join you for the next part of your journey.
This is an exciting time for you eagerly look forward to see how the days ahead will unfold! And so I join my colleagues (Doyle Sager, Bo Prosser and Bob Webb) in thinking with you about how that new partnership between pastor and congregation that might create a happy and hopeful future together. Our text on love could not be more appropriate.
When the time came for Jesus and the disciples to approach Jerusalem where the forces that wanted to kill him were conspiring about how to accomplish this delicately so their power was not compromised, Jesus understood the moment and commanded us to love one another:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.
Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples
If you have love for one another.
(John 13:34-35, NRSV)
Not much has changed because the question in our faith communities is what it’s always been among Christians: Can we love one another? To the point, why is it we say we love and act as though we don’t?
On Friday I visited with a pastor friend and he told he had a crabby old church member who had been a Christian for decades and who could cite from memory the gifts of the Spirit in Galatians … love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, & self-control. That so intrigued my colleague he wanted to ask bluntly, “If all that’s true about what Paul says about the presence of peace, love, and joy because of the Spirit, why don’t you tell your face that news?” Pointedly, why is it the church allows that kind of disconnect over decades of Christian community to go unchallenged? Why would the church shrug their shoulders as if saying one thing and living another were somehow normal?
According to Jesus, Paul, and John, the presence of Christ is marked by love. We’ve already heard from John and Jesus. Paul gives us the words from what’s known as the ode to love in the 13th chapter of his letter to the church in Corinth. It’s pure poetry and artfully said. The 13th chapter of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth is a great starting point for defining love. But widen the lens on the text and what you discover is this famous chapter on love was written in response to crisis. The church had regressed and had been split by factionalism and rivals for authority had stepped forward in the swirl of those crises. Love must be asserted in our midst in order to save us from ourselves. So Paul and later John both picked up from Jesus the commandment that we love one another.
One of my friends at Holmeswood scribed his own version of these texts a while back that spoke to our need to not only call it “love,” but to talk about what it means:
Real love transcends puppy love, lust and infatuation.
Real love never stops growing.
It enables two individuals to merge diverse backgrounds
and creates a new lifestyle for both.
Real love joins two together as one and yet allows each
to remain a separate and unique person.
Real love picks up dirty socks, washes dishes and takes out trash without complaint;
it is energetic, positive and enthusiastic and rejects negativism.
Real love doesn’t keep itself a secret; it shares its identity.
Real love suffers with the sufferer and rejoices with the joyous;
it is uncompromising on basic beliefs,
but is willing to compromise on issues less important.
Real love means having to say you’re sorry and mean it.
Real love doesn’t find it necessary to say, “I told you so.”
It is trustworthy and maintains trust even when the circumstances appear suspicious.
Real love has its own rewards and has a way of reaping more than is spent.
Real love is rewarded with a lifetime of cherished memories
and the satisfaction of success where others have failed.
It is all there is that is important.
Through the two millennia of church history, the question of whether clergy and congregation can love one another is typically a love story about a very strange kind of love. I cannot begin to tell you how important it was to me a few years ago when I was in a season of fierce conflict with a handful of men over the power system of the church. Steve Graham, my wise and wonderful pastoral friend, would quietly listen to me describe one painful, conflicted encounter after another – then he commented that I was getting to “a new level of intimacy with my church.”
We’re living in a perilous and particularly anxious time in the church. Let me make a simple observation. For nearly six years, I’ve been a part of a peer-learning group of anywhere between ten to fifteen ministers who gather once a month to share our stories, read and study together, and live a shared life with one another as colleagues. The group’s existence is a statement about our refusal to suffer in silence the stress of being servants of the church as if we’re alone in the world. It’s a confession that ministry is hard and we all need colleagues who can come together one day a month to deepen our relationship with someone else who understands our world.
The surprising part of that group is that every year we’ve lost someone; on a couple of occasions we’ve lost two. Think about that, every year when we have our first meeting of the fall, the painful truth is we can look around the room and realize one of us likely won’t be in ministry at the end of the spring. We’ve lost ministers in predictable ways:
- Marriages have come apart as evidence that husband and wife have grown apart
- Several ministers have been asked to leave by the leaders of the church
- Ministers have walked out on their own, but seldom on their own terms
- Deep despair has been shared over the expectation the minister walk on water or raise the dead
- Most, even the survivors, have dealt with depression and anxiety to the point they needed counseling and/or mood medications
- Sexual indiscretions have occurred
Quite simply, we in the church, like in other crucial institutions, are living in a time of revolution. If you haven’t read about it or studied it as most ministers have done, you’ve surely felt it in your bones. Statistician George Barna has claimed in his book, Revolution, that, an explosion of spiritual energy and activity he calls ‘the Revolution’ (is occurring that is) an unprecedented reengineering of America’s faith dimension … (that is) likely to be the most significant transition in the religious landscape that you will ever experience.”
Anxiety about uncontrollable change seems to be the plague of our time and it’s not a unique phenomenon of only a handful of churches. Almost every church I know struggles with these issues. One pastor said recently, “The church is sick … it’s like a stray dog at a whistler’s convention.” Churches are discovering they are living in the tension between heritage and its inherent predictability and a heightened sense of anxiety that is painfully heightened when they realize the past won’t continue in a recognizable form into the future as it has in generations before us.
So how will you and Jason travel the path of union between pastor and congregation together? The typical church handles its stress over this kind of anxiety by projecting blame upon their pastor wondering why the pastor can’t lead them where they don’t want to go. As a watcher of the church, it seems to me the church has become like a ship on the waters of the world. The analogy is pertinent when we ask why the pastor as the captain of the ship can’t chart the right course – watching over the bow to a future toward which the church might sail. “It’s all about direction and vision,” we might say in our great wisdom. It’s about setting the sails and navigating the ship. Who will chart the course and how will the church propel itself across the water toward the future?
In truth, the church has more to say about how the ship of faith travels than any pastor on his or her own can muster. The church has more power than it could ever imagine in telling its story to the world. Most churches don’t realize the laity has more power than the pastor – certainly possessing more power than it uses; most churches call pastors on whom they project all the work they should be doing themselves – charting direction, creating purpose in spite of the church’s own internal and unidentified resistance to that direction.
And from the stern, the back of the boat no one seems cognizant of, what do we do about the rope tied off the back end to that mysterious and unidentified “thing” that’s been tossed off behind the boat? What is it the church is vigorously towing that holds us back from a more purposeful direction? For some churches, it symbolizes the past that must be protected. For others, it’s simply a projection of their fear of a future that’s changing before their eyes that they can’t seem to name and about which they shudder not knowing what to do about it.
Meanwhile, there’s a world out that wonders why we exist. There is a world that wants to drink deeply from the well of God’s love and grace. The water of that well is our love from God and our love for one another.
You have set a courageous course for the future that will demand you work together, in honest dialogue with one another about the issues that matter. Your new pastor needs your love as collaborators for the kingdom. Your new pastor needs your partnership in setting the sails and working together for the sake of this church’s witness to Christ here in Liberty and the wider community that seem to be your mission field. Know you have friends and supporters who are praying for you in these exciting days. We are laborers together in God’s great harvest and in order to be faithful to that calling, Christ command us to love one another.