sermons

WILLIAM AND THE FUTURE OF THE CHURCH (8/23/15)

Greg StevensA sermon preached by Gregory Stevens
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Text: Matthew 25: 31-46

I came to the Faith at a small Southern Baptist church in good ole’ Lutz Florida. It was the part of town that continues to wave the Confederate flag as a sign of pride. The toughest guys had flags hooked-up to their lifted semi-trucks. They’d get “John 3:16” in bold across the back window. We were the Bible-believing, evolution denying, immigrant hating type. Science was just plain Devil worship!

Ms. Kathy, my Sunday School teacher, she was helping us high schoolers memorize our Vacation Bible School songs one year.

“Sing along or don’t sing at all Gregory!” Ms. Kathy would say. I was the only kid in the class who desperately wanted to sing, “Jesus loves the little children, All the Children of the world!” But I was just a naive little boy because at First Baptist Lutz we didn’t believe God loved “ALL” the children, as Ms. Kathy would say, “Even kids are born wretched sinners separated from God.”

I’ve always had hard time with this. The idea that God would hate someone just didn’t make sense. Just a few years before this when I was in Middle School my oldest sister took her own life – they told me she was going to burn in Hell. But even 13-year-old-me thought that was crazy. I was convinced that “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

Another time it was the word “evolution.” I said it when teaching some high school guys and it got back to their parents; I spent the following afternoon in our Church Apologist’s office (and yes we had a full-time pastor committed to defending our doctrine, when he should have been apologizing for it). “6 literal days” he said, “and yes all the animals fit on the arc, God gave Noah the ability to domesticate Dinosaurs.”

And then sometimes it was just the mumbled side comments, “those liberal feminists.” They didn’t like that I supported my female co-worker in her preaching and leading, but that wasn’t about to change because I was convinced, and still am convinced that, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Any of us have stories like this; church horror stories. I have friends who have struggled for years to disentangle themselves from churches that have shamed them for asking tough questions. I know of others who were kicked out for being gay or divorced or because they’re having pre-marital sex or because they doubt or vote Democrat.

I’ve sometimes wanted to leave the Church myself.

Feeling my voice muffled and gifts ignored – sadly I felt more appreciated elsewhere. But even when I’ve taken a step away, I’ve always been drawn back. What I’ve learned, is that Church might not be perfect, but that’s what makes Her real, She is us and we are Her, both of us just stumbling along in the Way of Jesus.

My faith journey has lead me from an Evangelical fundamentalist Southern Baptist church to this sacred space, with you, still Baptist but such a different expression of such a great tradition. Unlike a lot of my friends, instead of turning on the church, or walking away, I kept falling deeper into the mystery of God. As I hit roadblocks in my faith I continued to search and discover more inclusive and intellectually honest communities that prized social justice work over altar calls.

But I was one of the lucky ones.

59% of young people with a Christian background have dropped out of church. Many gave up all together, some wandered other religious paths, and others now claim, “spiritual but not religious.”

Contrary to popular belief though, I don’t think the way to get these folk back is with hipper worship bands, better graphic design, or Tweetable sermons. And that’s because it’s not a hipper Christianity people are looking for, rather it’s a truer Christianity that I think many long to take part.

In the fall of 2007 I was freshman at the University of South Florida. I found out the hard way that Architecture wasn’t the best major for those of us who can’t draw, are terrible at math, and are more so interested in pretty buildings than state fire codes. I ended up switching to Religious Studies and planned on saving the world for Jesus.

I started out a little rough; I thought I could convert my Introduction to Judaism teacher to Christianity. Turned in my first paper with the hopes of stirring the fear of Hell into his heart. Needless to say, Professor Fisher proceeded to explain to me, and the rest of our class, that the Jewish tradition has absolutely no concept of Hell and never has, “The idea actually came about sometime in the Middle Ages.” It didn’t stop there, to my horror he continued, “And In honor of Gregory, I want your next online posting to be a Jewish interpretation of Rabbi Jesus’ teachings from the Gospel attributed to Matthew chapter 25 verses 31 to 46.”

I went home that night, opened my Bible and read, “Come, you that are blessed…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

It felt like a slap across the face. I was no doubt still clouded by a culturally crafted fiery vision of Hell, but because of Dr. Fisher’s prompting, for the first time ever I noticed something more. It was how we treat the poor and suffering that mattered most, Jesus said, “just as you did to the least of these, you did to me.” It was their deeds, not their creeds.

As my evangelical fundamentalism unraveled into a cosmically conscious Christian faith, I came to recognize that Jesus had no concept of the fiery hell I wanted to damn Professor Fisher to. Instead Jesus seemed much more worried about the present Realm of God bursting forth in places we might least expect.

In sharing this story to my high school students back in Tampa, I once asked, “So y’all, where do you God can be found?”

In the eloquence of a 16-year-old boy, William shouted, “WITH THE WEIRDOS!”

Reclining with a big grin, he and a few of the other guys in the back row giggled.

“Yes! William, you’re exactly right! Jesus tells us that God can be found in places that our culture calls “weird.” You know, those of us who don’t have it all together, who have run out of strength, ideas, will power, resolve, or energy; who ache because of how severely out of whack the world is; and those who stumble, trip, and fall in the same place again and again. That’s who Jesus says are blessed.”

Power and privilege have often kicked out people of different identities, ages, abilities, and histories. But in God’s family Jesus teaches us that it’s the outsiders that are insiders, the tax collectors, Samaritans, lesbians, illegal immigrants, teen moms, and black lives – they’re now all on the inside.

It’s those that society deems, “Weirdos!” who God is throwing the party for. In this way, God is for everyone, sinners and saints. When Christ is the center, there are no boundaries.

And this is exactly where I think the future of the church lies, in keeping it weird.

More research from Barna Group found that 67% of millennials prefer a “classic” church over a “trendy” one, and 77% would choose a “sanctuary” over an “auditorium.” It’s not about being more trendy, contemporary, or hip – it’s about being real. Being exactly who God desires you to be – yourself! And who better than you to be you!

Sounds easier than it is though. We live and move and have our being in a culture that is starving for authenticity. We want our leaders, our co-workers, our family members our friends, and everyone else we interact with to tell us the truth and to be themselves.

Sadly, even though we may say these things, few of us live true to our deepest passions and desires. We’ve been taught by our parents, teachers, spouses, friends, co-workers, politicians, and the media, that it’s more important to be liked and to fit in than it is to be who you truly are.

Authenticity is a virtue we aspire to and is something we must practice in the moment-by-moment, day-by-day experiences of life. Our ability to be really real will deepen as we move through the journey of life.

The trick isn’t about making church cool; it’s about keeping it authentic, or as William would say, “WEIRD!”

1st century Greek philosopher Celsus dismissed Christianity as a silly religion, fit for uneducated, for slaves and women. It was a faith for the unloved and the unwanted. The early Christians were experts at inviting everyone to the table, especially society’s weirdos. This radical hospitality was fundamental to being human, Hospitality kept the church from becoming a members-only social club. It kept, and keeps, the church weird.

Some Christians tend to equate morality with sexual ethics; our ancestors defined morality as welcoming the stranger. I think we should scratch the sexual ethics thing and move in the direction of our tradition, welcoming the stranger.

As we look to the future of the Church together may we seek hospitality more than dogma, an open mind more than uniformity, being more than believing, and doing the right thing rather than just talk about it. In this holy place, you are loved and wanted simply because of who you are and not because of what you achieve.

Amen.

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fbcpaloalto

We are a progressive Baptist Church affiliated with the American Baptist Churches, USA. We have been in Palo Alto since 1893. We celebrate our Baptist heritage. We affirm the historic Baptist tenets of: Bible Freedom, Soul Freedom, Church Freedom, Religious Freedom

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