Last Wednesday night, Washington Plaza began a joint fall effort with our friends at Martin Luther King, Jr. Christian Church just down the street in Reston. We're doing Bible Study together for the next 12 weeks.
MLK Church and WPBC are no strangers to one another. We've been friends for a while now. I count Rev. Jean Robinson-Casey one of my dearest clergy colleagues. Over the course of the past two years, we've shared a special Diversity service together, Good Friday services, a Maundy Thursday service and one Sunday morning joint worship service where I was asked to preach for MLK's 30th anniversary (with a joint lunch together to follow).
But as is the case with all kinds of friendships, there comes a time when you have to take things to the next level. If you are going to be friends, you really have to be friends, not just in words but in actions. Rev. Casey and I both agreed that a joint Bible study on Wednesday nights this fall was just the right next step. Our fellowship and learning would be sweeter, we knew. Rev. Casey and I dreamed together one afternoon over lunch about what we might like to study and how our coming together could bless both of our congregations. We'd study, Barbara Brown Taylor's book, An Altar in the World. And, let the Spirit lead us into the rest.
Last Wednesday night, we had a great kick-off to this joint venture! The sweetness that always seems to be there when both churches gather shone through. It seems no profound to say it was fun, but it truly was! We laughed and shared stories with one another. It felt to me, as it always seems to feel when we gather that "This is how church should be!" MLK folks came over to WPBC's sanctuary and I led the discussion. Tonight, we'll go to MLK's building and Rev. Casey will lead us.
The sky's the limit to see how God continues to lead our friendship as we grow together in study this fall! I'm one happy pastor to be along for the ride.
What does joy feel like?
What does a God's ordaining moment feel like?
What does "this is the gospel incarnated" feel like?
What does a "this is why I do ministry" moment feel like?
For me, all of the questions could sum up how I felt about worship and lunch with our friends at Martin Luther King, Jr. Christian Church yesterday. We gathered together in celebration of their 30th anniversary in their worship space. Though this was the first time we'd worshipped together at 11 am, it was not the first time we'd shared fellowship together. Past events included shared lunches and a Sunday afternoon black history month program last February.
As I sit at my desk this morning, my heart just beams with joy from what our coming together meant in the larger perspective of why it is that we do church in the first place.
We sang out our hearts out (our choirs even practiced together prior to the service on Thursday night for two special pieces), we prayed, we gave our offerings together and we forgot about the time on the clock. I watched from my preacher's chair on the pulpit members of my congregation being moved by the spirit to clap, stand and raise their hands too in praise of God. It was good church!
I was invited to preach the anniversary sermon, by MLK Christian's pastor, Rev. Dr. Jean Robinson-Casey-- a very gracious gesture coming out of our shared friendship and belief that the gospel must be lived out in diversity. It was my first time preaching in a predominantly African-American congregation and I loved it! The feedback from the congregation enlivened my spirit and I believe that could really preach like this every Sunday if given more response.
Joy for me came in simply being together.
As themes of my own life story have always included paying attention to racial reconciliation, so yesterday felt again like a moment of "this is what you were made to do." I love building relationships with those who are of different traditions with me and I'm glad when others want to build them back. Friendship is always at the heart of any change. I am proud to call Rev. Jean my friend.
As I said in my sermon, we only really know what Jesus looks like when we are in relationship with ALL of God's children. So in adding some different faces to our worship and fellowship, it felt like another dimension of the gospel was revealed to us all. It was holy ground. And, when we find holy ground, don't we want to walk on it as much as possible?
There is so much of what we do as pastors and in church that feels like grunt work-- filing papers, keeping lists, sending reminder emails about who needs to take the trash out or when Bible Study starts-- that can suck the passion out of us faster than we know it. But, yesterday was a reminder of how powerful our collective experience of church can be when we direct our administrative talents toward the relationships and the reconciliation that really matters.
I believe that the expressions of friendship between the Martin Luther King, Jr. Christian Church and Washington Plaza Baptist church that continued and overflowed yesterday have only just begun. I look forward to my continued friendship with Rev. Jean and I look forward to WPBC and MLK continuing to partner together for the glory of God.
By Faith We Go On: Hebrews 12:1-2, 8-12
Martin Luther King, Jr. Christian Church 30th Anniversary Service & Joint Service with Washington Plaza Baptist Church
Now, I know that some in the congregation this morning, get to hear me talk more than they might like-- as I preach every Sunday-- but for the rest of you all gathered today, you probably don't know much about me other than the kind words that Pastor Jean shared with you earlier (thank you). So, there is something I really need to share with you about my past in order for you to get where I am coming from this morning.
As a child, on countless occasions, I desperately wanted to become my dog. Yes, my dog, named Trevor. Trevor, became a member of our family when I was in 4th grade so that my younger sister Emily would stop screaming bloody murder every time she was in a room with a dog. Though a moody and hyper pup, I loved Trevor from the start. And so, regularly, I asked my mom if he could ride along with us as she took me to school in the mornings.
One particular morning, fearing the worst day ever-- a spelling test I did not study enough for, meeting up with some potential bullies on the playground, and having to sit through an extra math class on long division-- I remember voicing to my mom just as I was about to get out of the car that I wished could become Trevor, if only for a day.
"Why?" she asked looking surprised at my request. "Why would you want to be Trevor?"
"Well," I said, "Trevor has such a good life and he doesn't even know it. He eats. He sleeps. He plays outside and we love on him. Never does Trevor have to worry about fights with other dogs or teachers giving him bad grades or even what his friends will think of his lunch. I wish, Mom, that I could be Trevor right now! I wish; I wish!"
Of course, you know how well my wish of transformation into a dog went over. I did not get to have a one day vocation of eating kibbles and bits and barking at cats. But while a silly wish, isn't it true that it would be a lot easier to be dog than a living, breathing, worrying, stressed out, commuting to work in traffic every day human being? (They don't call it a "dog's life" for nothing!)
So, I ask you: anyone come to church with any worries today? Anybody come to church with any heavy burdens? Anybody come to church today with cares weighing you down that you'd just like to disappear from right now and become your dog (or better yet your rich neighbor's dog) for the day?
Well, welcome to the human plight of the hard life we live in, most of the time.
Dr. Tony Campolo, champion of social justice and professor at Eastern College, PA, once shared a meditation on the difference between human beings and the rest of the members of our mammal family, saying: "Human beings, as any social scientist will tell you, are unique among all the creatures on the planet. We are the only ones who are capable of imagining the future; of looking ahead."[i]
In contrast to the carefree nature of a squirrel gathering acorns, or a horse eating hay, or a lion searching for dinner as their singular daily purpose-- we as human beings have the reasoning capacity to fear the future, plan, and to anticipate death. Unlike our furry friends, our days are easily--- just as we brought to mind a few minutes before-- filled with anxieties about what is not and what might be.
But, this is not the whole story, Dr. Campolo said. Because we do have the capacity to imagine the future and to be filled with forward directed reason-- we also have the capacity for faith. We have the ability, unlike any other creature, to see the world from a greater perspective and to join our lives into what God is already doing in the world.
Therefore, hear this: faith, as an emotion and a state of being IS a uniquely human gift. For even though we all know death (like taxes) is coming, we do not have to be trapped in fear of what we don't understand, what is not yet, and what might be generations from now. Faith helps us face our future-- even if we know not what it will be. In this hard, hard world with all its challenges and sufferings, it is faith that God has given each one of us as how to get through!
Furthermore, faith is what God gave you and you and you and me, so that we could be in relationship with the awesomeness that is the Creator of the universe. God's gift of faith is how we even have the chance of knowing the One who is the ultimate good.
In our Hebrews lesson for this morning, we hear a good sermon proclaimed to a discouraged people, a people who faced sufferings and a people who really wanted to give up on their spiritual lives. And in this sermon they are given words of hope. These hope filled words began with "by faith."
Look with me at verse one of Hebrews 11: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen."
By faith, we have the promise, of God's dwelling in what we simply cannot see or get our minds wrapped around with impossible odds of accomplishment. And, as we read on beginning at verse 8, this preacher reminds us of the story of Abraham-- a man who knew a thing or two about being asked to live in faith.
Notice with me some key points from the Hebrew preacher's retelling of Abraham's story.
First, by faith, Abraham-- obeyed. When he knew that God had asked him to set his direction toward a particular task AND Abraham simply did what God wanted. Not what he wanted. And in obedience there was no whining. No complaining. No, "Well, God, maybe there could be another way"-- no, we read that Abraham obeyed.
And, second, in this path of obedience, some unusual behavior was required-- to set out for a journey not knowing where he was going (stupidity by our modern standards of a GPS for everything, right?). But, on this unknown journey, Abraham had to be ready for whatever came, even if this meant going to a foreign land.
Not a land he knew anything about. Not a land that was comfortable for him. Not a land where he could drive by his old neighborhood every day and wave with a grin on his face of feeling secure. No, a land that was completely unknown-- with unknown people and unknown food and unknown smells and you name it: it was the unknown!
And, third, by faith, Abraham found himself without the security of permanence as he went on. Look with me in verse 9. Where does it say that Abraham lived? "in tents."
As much as Abraham hoped his journey with God would bring him fortune and wealth and a big plot of land to call his own with lots of little Abs running around-- God never gave him more than a home of a tent.
And more so, it wasn't even until the last act of his life, that God blessed him with a son, a miracle boy named Isaac. Isaac, a son that came by a promise that Abraham's descendants would be as many as the stars in the sky (but again made no logical sense). But, in all of this, by faith-- Abraham lived.
As I was reading over Martin Luther King, Jr. Christian Church's history this past week, I recognized quickly that this body of gathered believers, like Abraham knew a thing or two about the journey of "by faith."
For "by faith" in July of 1981 (I won't tell you how old I was on this day . . .), a small group of neighbors of parents of good citizens of this new community gathered and shared a crab dinner and began dreaming about being called a church together.
For "by faith" on January 15, 1982, a group of 12 committed Christ followers gathered in the home of Adelle and John Author Jones and selected a name for this new movement of the spirit and called it, Martin Luther King, Jr. Church.
For "by faith" on February 7, 1982 the group gathered again, this time at the Southgate community center to fellowship and celebrate their first worship experience together.
And, "by faith" the first interim minister, Rev. Dr. Joseph Dancy , Jr. was called to serve and lead this growing group of believers. And the word "Christian" was added to the church's name.
And, "by faith" later on Rev. Dr. Clinton D. McNair was called as pastor and lead the church alongside of you to begin to recognize that this new movement was not so new and so it needed a better "tent" to call home for the long run. "By faith" in 1987 2.3 acres of land was purchased through the sacrificial giving of so many of you at 11400 North Shore Drive in Reston.
And, the "by faith" story and it many twists and turns through the years could go on and on and I'm sure if I stopped my sermon right now and asked for testimonies, we'd be here until midnight recounting the good works, the impossible victories coming through and the lives in this community changed by the witness of this church. For, if there is anything I know about the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. Christian Church is story of "by faith."
You story has been one much like the Shel Sliverstein poem of not letting what others say about you determine you future when he wrote:
“Listen to the mustn'ts, child. Listen to the don'ts. Listen to the shouldn'ts, the impossibles, the won'ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me... Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.”
You've, church, let God say to you throughout the years, "Anything can happen, child. Anything can be."
But is this enough? Should we pat ourselves on the backs and go home now?
As much as today is a celebration of the past, of the love of Christ that has been shared with the community through your hands and the hands that have gone before, today is also a crossroads of this "by faith" journey, for you, my Martin Luther King, Jr. Christian friends.
What will the title of the next chapter of your story be? In whom will you trust? And in whom will you follow? How will you choose as a church chose to move on?
And while there are countless perfect good ways that any of you could suggest for this fill in the blank statement: "We will move on by______" I suggest to you this morning, as one of your cheerleaders among many of us down the street there is only one way to move forward as a church and that is "by faith." Dr. King in fact once said: “Faith is taking the first step even when you can't see the whole staircase.”
You know I told you that I read more about your history as a congregation before I prepared to preach today and I couldn't help as I read to pay close attention to the section of your history which highlights the tenure of my friend, Rev. Jean.
I have the utmost respect for your pastor and her leadership here. In fact, my Washington Plaza friends, it was she who gave me some of the best advice in the first couple months of my ministry in Reston when I was having one of those difficult days that come to any new pastor. She said to me, "It's going to get better. By God's help." And, "Yes, Rev. Jeanine, by God's help, we at Washington Plaza are having some good days together."
But, again, as I was reading, I noticed something unique about the focus of your current pastor, highlighted specifically about her time here and it was this sentence: "A focus area for Rev. Jean is the building of a diverse worship community that welcomes all races, creeds, and colors."
I dare say, we, the Washington Plaza Baptist community, would not be in these chairs today, if it wasn't for this faith conviction of your pastor. She's led you to claim the gospel, the whole gospel which means we've got to have people around us that don't look, think or even talk just like us to truly see the face of Christ.
And, in light of this, I can't help but think as I dream together today with you, my Martin Luther King, Jr. Christian friends that the next 30 years is going to look different from your first thirty years-- if you keep following by faith.
I might be wrong, but I can imagine that what you see today (look around the room right now) -- people of all races, creeds and colors worshipping the one God gathered here together-- is going to be a part of the what the future holds.
Sure, this congregation was founded on the need of doing church in a rich, worshipful tradition and passing down stories from one generation to another of a particular kind. But, 1982 is not 2012. And, what God needed from you, church in 1982 might not be what God needs from you faith believers of God in 2012 and beyond.
This is the reason why our movement must always be in faith. Because yes, while we know there is a future and we could very well be anxious about it (especially if we start comparing it to the past), we have a God who continually whispers in our ears the truth the Apostle Paul long ago taught us, "With God's power working in us, we can do more than we could ask for or imagine."
Because of this promise, I say dream church! Give church. I say grow church. Study church. I say give church. And in all of these things, live and move and have your being by faith.
After all, Dr. King once said: “If you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk, if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
I'm excited to see where this by faith journey takes you and I even dare say takes us, as brothers and sisters in Christ, as friends, as partners in ministry together only blocks away from one another.
Can the church say Amen to our calling to "move on in faith?"
[i] "Trusting in God in the Days that Lie Ahead" Program #4604 http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/campolo_4604.htm
The longer I am the pastor of my congregation, the more I am convinced that one of our growing edges comes in the category of diversity.
Diversity, a cultural buzz word these days often is what someone talks about when they find themselves in a homogenous group and know it needs some spicing up. It's a word we often use to describe our intentions, but rarely the reality. It's something that makes us feel good to talk about but scares us to death to live out.
Yet, without mandate from an overseeing bishop (since Baptists don't have them), it's something that Washington Plaza has sought to be for over the years. We've regularly welcomed with ease members from other denominational backgrounds without asking for re-baptism. Many nationalities are represented in the membership rolls at all times. We have gay and straight members alike, no big deal. We have folks who are all sides of the theological spectrum on a number of given issues. And, we love the republican delegation of members as much as we do the democratic leaning folks.
All of this is great and should be celebrated and is one of the reasons why I am proud to be Washington Plaza's pastor, but I wonder if diversity is something that we find merely in our community and our individual lives as a noun or has it transformed our lives as a verb?
When I came back from my Interfaith trip to Israel in January, I became more convinced that if I said I was a pastor who cultivated diversity in my congregation and in my life, then there was going to have changes all around in my priorities. (I even wrote an article in Baptist Today about just this exhortation).
And, as I have begun to make changes, I've seen that diversity practice exists as an intentional lifestyle choice. And, it is a choice, I am challenging Washington Plaza folks to continue to make too.
I've found that it's a choice that shows up in who I go to lunch with. It's a choice that has everything to do with who comes to dinner at my home and to whose homes I go. It's a choice that says everything about what books I read, how I prepare for sermons and most importantly how I lead.
In light of all of this, as a congregation, we've been busy building relationships that are more than token partnerships right in our own neighborhood. It's good to start where you are, right? We're seeking to make real friends with other congregations which are like us theologically but different from us racially. We're seeking to make friends with those who look like us but theologically see the world going in different directions than us. We are seeking to make friends with people that we have never interacted with before such our Muslim brothers and sisters.
In the past six months, we've hosted Martin Luther King Jr. Christian Church for a celebration of diversity special afternoon service and reception, we've shared in a community forum at Oakbrook Church about Israel and Palestine, we've hosted our friends again from MLK for a shared meal, we've served as the hosting congregation for the Reston Interfaith Ministrium bi-monthly gatherings and we've welcomed friends in our facility from Northern VA Hebrew Congregation and other faith communities for an Interfaith book club discussion. Most of these congregations are in a less than five-mile radius of where we are located-- proving you don't have to go far to find ways to live into your growth of diversity.
And, this is just the beginning as I see it. Why? Because diversity is a verb. To be diverse, it's an action that one must make their own, over and over again until it becomes so normal that it doesn't feel like an imposed concept but simply who we are as people.
I'm glad to be on this journey of neighborhood partnerships, seeing to be a witness of Christ's love in the Reston area. It's a work that has changed my life and I know will continue to do so for our church as the testimony of diversity as a verb lives on.