Text: I Kings 18:20-21; 30-39
It was a day to be remembered, when the multitudes of Israel were assembled at the foot of Mt. Carmel and when the solitary prophet of God came forth to defy the four hundred and fifty priests of the false god Baal. Standing on the hill of Mt. Carmel, and along the plain that day, were three kinds of people. There was the devoted servant of Yahweh, a solitary prophet named Elijah. There were the decided followers of Baal, the fertility god of Jezebel. But the vast majority of people there that day belonged to a third class of people – those who had not fully determined whether to worship Yahweh, the God of their ancestors, or Baal, the god of Jezebel. On the one hand, their ancient traditions led them to fear the God of their ancestors, and on the other hand, their interest in the larger culture led them to bow before the spiritual advisers of a foreign god. Many of the people there that day, were secret and half-hearted followers of Yahweh, while they were the public worshipers of Baal. The text tells us, “They were people limping between two different opinions.”
In a high drama, mountaintop contest between the representatives of two different religions, each trying to prove the superiority of its deity, the prophet Elijah called out not just the boldly defiant, but the passively uncommitted, and asked the people, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?” It was a provocative and daring question then, and possibly an even more provocative and daring question today. In the changing world that we live in, with so many options and opinions, how do we hear and respond to the prophet’s question: “How long will we go limping between two different opinions?”
I want to speak this morning about how we, as a church, stay grounded in who we are in the midst of a rapidly changing world that does present us with so many choices, so many options and opinions, so many false gods to chase. There are so many altars being torn down and so many new ones being built today. In the midst of the tearing down and rebuilding, “How do we stay clear about who we are, our mission and our purpose in this community and in the world?” Or another way to ask the question is, “How do we keep becoming who we already are in this changing world?”
Like all of society’s institutions – politics, family, education, the economy – the church is in the midst of major change. As your pastor, most of my time these days is spent trying to lead our church through this enormous change that is taking place. Every religious journal that I read is concerned with the changing church. Pastors that I talk with are struggling to understand what all this change means for the church and how to respond to it. People of all walks of life are quick to share their opinions about how the church will need to change if it’s going to remain relevant in the world. And many churches are changing, some drastically, how they worship and minister hoping that the changes they make will help their church survive.
Change, we know, is inevitable, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop it. Phyllis Tickle, author ofThe Great Emergence says trying to stop change “would be like telling the sun not to rise.” In her book, The Great Emergence, she explores her belief that a change similar to, and as monumental as, the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, has already begun in our time. Tickle explains that this type of monumental change happens every 500 years. No one knows why she writes, but it does. For example, she notes, 500 years ago there was the Protestant Reformation. Five hundred years before that was the Great Schism that divided the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Five hundred years prior to that saw the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, and 500 years before that, the birth, death and resurrection of Christ. Scholars in many different fields agree with Tickle that we are in one of those monumental changes. But none of us really need Tickle or any other scholars to tell us that monumental change is occurring. We can feel it and see it.
In times like these, the church has been compelled to have what Bishop Mark Dyer has described as a huge “rummage sale,” when we let go of a lot of stuff and claim new treasures. If the bishop is right, then the question before us is this: “In the midst of so much change, what will we let go of and what will we keep.”
On the anniversary of completing my twenty-first year with you, I say to you that I believe our church must and should continue to change. We need to evolve our worship to speak more authentically to a younger generation. We need to re-invest in our internal ministries to build broader and deeper relationships inside the congregation. We need to sharpen our messages to those outside our church to make sure we attract new members who already are Pullen folk, they just don’t know it yet. Yes, there is much work to be done in our church as we ride this wave of the great emergence, and those sermons are coming. But today, I want to focus on what I would keep constant about our church in the midst of so much change. Before we charge into the rummage sale, we need to take a hard look around and sort out what we are willing to let go and what we can not do without, lest we lose our very identify as Pullen Church.
First, I would keep and claim our identity as being a “different” kind of Baptist church. It is a phrase I hear all the time when I meet people in the community and tell them that I am the pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church: “Oh, you are pastor of that Baptist church.” I’ve learned some over the years how to interpret the word “that”… We are that Baptist church that cherishes the historical freedoms of the Baptist church while acknowledging that our experiences of the sacred are more important than following creeds and doctrines. We are that Baptist church that considers what Jesus taught us about God to be more important than what the church has taught us about Jesus. We are that Baptist church that believes that the questions of faith are more important than having right answers. We are that Baptist church that hangs a 15–feet tall pregnant Mary on the side of our building during Advent. We are that Baptist church that acknowledges that there are many paths to God and that no one religion holds all the truth. We are that Baptist church where its people are not afraid to risk jail to stand for justice. I would keep and claim our identity as “that different kind of Baptist church” and I would let go of any need to be a “normal” Baptist church.
I would keep our commitment to wrestling with the sacred scriptures in ways that utilize the best resources of biblical scholarship while demanding that the scriptures speak an authentic word to our culture and time. And I would let go of any inclination to give into a shallow theology that does not require us to ask the hard questions of faith.
I would continue to practice radical hospitality and radical inclusiveness – welcoming all who come to our door: The Certain and the Doubtful; The Excluded and the Included; People who are Able and People who are Challenged; Rich, Poor and In Between; Divorced, Partnered, Single and Widowed; Atheist, Agnostic, Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, Islamic, Hindu, Jewish or Nothing; Heterosexual, Homosexual and Transgendered; African-American, Asian, Latino; Citizens and Guests. And I would let go of any feeling that nudged me into believing that some people are more worthy and deserving of God’s love and grace than others.
I would hold on to our commitment to be a community of priests to each other. I would let go of the idea that only the clergy can make a pastoral visit or that the ordained people know best how to discern God’s movement among us.
I would keep our commitment to worshiping God in ways that are reverent, challenging, thought provoking, and open to God’s spirit. And I would let go of any attempt to make worship an hour of entertainment.
And last, I would hold tight to our commitment to be a church that makes a difference in the world through doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God. And I would definitely let go of any worry about what other people say about us. There are so few churches in this world, especially Baptist churches, that are willing to go to the edges of society where people are oppressed and marginalized and disenfranchised and be present. There are so few churches, especially Baptist churches, that are willing to speak out on social issues that are about God’s justice for all people no matter their paper work or lack of, or where they live or whom they love. Pullen has been and is one of those few churches. In the midst of all the change that we are faced with, if I could only keep one thing from being put on the rummage sale table, it would be our commitment to becoming more of who we already are as a church that makes a difference in the world by our actions.
It may sound odd, but the challenge we face in this rapidly changing world is to become the church we already are…a church making a difference in our community and world for those to whom the larger church has said, “you are not enough.” Our message must be clear to all who come to our door: You are loved by God. You are enough. And you are welcome here. Any other opinions we may limp between will be insignificant if we stay true to that one message.