Good evening. Grace and peace to you from our Lord Jesus Christ. First, I wish to acknowledge some folk tonight:
• Larry and Becky Dobson and First Baptist, Trenton NJ that ordained me and taught me how to be a pastor;
• My staff and officers in ABCNJ;
• The ABC officers who have walked with me these 14 years;
• General Board and BGM members;
• My national and regional executive colleagues;
• Bill Frederickson, my pastor and friend;
• Brad Berglund, my spiritual friend and director;
• My OGS staff whose counsel, expertise and teamwork has been a joy and support to me;
• My family who mean the world to me – Jordan, Ethan, Urbi, and Isaiah. And especially Pat, my wife, to whom I have been married 40 years, though we joke that it is more like 20 because of the denominational travel I have done throughout our marriage. During my absences she has been both mother and father. As a young mother and pastor of two yoked city churches, every Sunday morning she would get Ethan ready, strap him into his baby seat and head off for her first morning service at Grace; repack him, put him back in the car seat, place him in the car and head off to St. Bartholomew for her second round of morning services. She was Ms. Fix-it in my absence. I arrived in Prague on a mission study trip I was leading to find an urgent message waiting. When I called home I learned the basement had flooded and she and Jordan had been hand-bailing it out. She also swears that as I make my calendar I have snow radar and am always away during the heaviest snows, a situation punctuated by the fact that one Christmas she gave herself a snow blower as a present. She is an accomplished Christian leader in her own right. A successful pastor, a respected community leader whose church in Willingboro undertook a ministry to those infected with and family affected by AIDS when fear of infection and moral taint during that epidemic caused others to close their doors to them. A super mom, an incredible wife and friend, I so look forward to more time with her and this incredible family with which God has blessed me.
The account of Cleopas and his companion’s travel from Jerusalem to Emmaus on the third day after Jesus’ death details not just a walk of 7 miles, but a life changing encounter with the resurrected and living Christ. It is the living Lord, the living Word, who opens to them the written word. It is the risen Christ who reveals himself in breaking of bread and sharing the cup as the crucified one, undefeated by death, who is the resurrection and the life. Just as Israel was transformed from a slave people into God’s people in their journey through the Red Sea, Cleopas and his friend are transformed in their journey with the risen Lord from beleaguered believers into energized emissaries of a new covenant.
In 2003 at my first biennial as your General Secretary, I invited us into a journey of being Centered in Christ, into a journey of radical discipleship, into a journey of cross-bearing love. At that gathering I reminded us that from our earliest beginnings, Baptists have emphasized “heart religion.” We began as a movement within the church for spiritual renewal! Our Baptist forebears rejected cultural Christianity, and rituals and formalities which substituted precept or creed for personal faith. “Heart religion” was their emphasis. Therefore, at the heart of our faith is not a philosophy, not a program, but a person: Jesus of Nazareth, the living Lord.
Early Baptists were convinced of the power of the living Christ to open the words of scripture to them and thereby transform the church in the journey. To them Scripture was not static, a dead letter, but a living and dynamic word. Through the Spirit, Christ, the living Word, was alive within them bringing new insights into God’s will and purpose as they opened the Bible. They expressed their conviction in the declaration, “There is more light yet to break forth from scripture.”
It is this principle in Baptist life that has sparked transformation in the face of adaptive challenges. It is this principle that has opened Baptists to new mission horizons and practices. It is this principle that has led us as Baptists to embrace new ways of worship and means of evangelism. It is this principle that has led us as American Baptists to be a headlight and not a tail light in striving for social justice, peace and reconciliation as a people centered in Christ.
In the early church community, the Holy Spirit opened the eyes of others like Cleopas and his companion to believe in Jesus as God’s messiah foretold in scripture. In the early church community, the Holy Spirit spoke afresh of God’s temple being a house of all nations and created in the fellowship of the church an international, multicultural community, embracing Gentiles as well as Jews. Slave and free. Male and female.
On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit reignited the belief in the prophetic verses that God would pour out his Spirit upon all flesh, sons and daughters, validating women as leaders in the church and gospel ministry.
American Baptists, in our journey with the living Christ, “There is yet more light to break forth from scripture,” as God continues God’s redemptive work as the living God of a living church.
Through these past 14 years I have kept on my desk my daddy’s lunchbox, it could have been Momma’s as well, as a reminder of who I am, where I came from, the sacrifices my parents made, and how I have been transformed in the journey. Howard and Clois Medley grew up in the Deep South – Daddy the son of sharecroppers, Momma, the daughter of poor dirt farmers. The highest education either received was the fifth grade. Following the Second World War, they went to work in factories doing piece work where they were paid by the amount they produced each day.
When I was a young boy, I can remember them giving their lives to Christ and being baptized. And I watched them being transformed in their journey with Christ. They taught me that you are poor only when you fail to be generous to those in need. When neighbors became unemployed momma and daddy took in food. When a medical emergency affected a neighboring family, momma and daddy took in their kids until the crisis passed. We discovered, “little is much when God is in it.”
Some parts of the journey with Christ were difficult. As people of the Deep South they had grown up in segregation. They had heard racial superiority justified in church, reinforcing the canons of Southern culture with regards to race. The sixties and seventies were a time of tumult in their lives as “new light was breaking forth from scripture on issues of race.” Leaving behind old prejudices, old ways was difficult, but in the journey they and we were transformed by a living Christ speaking through a living word.
It has been important for me to remember who I am, where I came from and how I have been transformed in my journey with Jesus.
And it’s important for us as a community of believers to remember who we are, where we came from, and how we have been transformed by a living Christ speaking through a living word in our journey as American Baptists. So let me remind you of the stock from which you sprang.
Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson were founding leaders of Baptist life in America. Both were declared heretics by the Puritan leaders of Massachusetts and exiled. Both remained undeterred in their emphasis on a faith that is personal and the right of religious liberty for all. New light was breaking forth.
George Lisle was the first American overseas missionary. Born a slave, he bought his freedom, sought education and took the gospel to Jamaica where he founded a thriving Baptist community and was influential in ending slavery on the island. New light was breaking forth.
Anne and Adoniram Judson faced stiff opposition from Old School Baptists who insisted on the doctrine of predestination. The Judson’s were part of a theological revolution that changed Baptists into a “whosoever will” missionary force unparalleled in modern history. New light was breaking forth.
John Mason Peck and Isaac McCoy led the movement of Baptists across the Mississippi into the burgeoning West. At a time when there was debate as to whether Native Americans had souls, Peck, McCoy and other home missionaries were founding churches and schools among Native Americans and advocating for their rights. New light was breaking forth.
During and after the War Between the States, Henry Morehouse steered the home mission society in advocacy against slavery and the founding of schools for the newly freed. Joanna P. Moore, unable to convince the home mission society that she should be appointed to serve in the South during reconstruction was undeterred. So she founded the Woman’s American Baptist Mission Society to send her into Tennessee and Mississippi starting fireside schools for African-American women and children and became beloved because of her self-sacrifice. New light was breaking forth.
Helen Barrett Montgomery and Walter Rauschenbush led a revolution of justice and compassion. Montgomery, the first woman president of the Northern Baptist Convention was a Biblical scholar active in the struggle for women’s rights. Walter Rauschenbush, created the Social Gospel movement because as a Baptist pastor in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City he saw the cruelty of child labor firsthand. New light was breaking forth.
Carl F.H. Henry was a leader in the evangelical movement in America. A close friend of Billy Graham, he became the first editor of Christianity Today the foremost publication for evangelicals. New light was breaking forth.
Martin Luther King, Jr., galvanized the conscience of the world as he led America in a nonviolent pilgrimage toward equality and reconciliation through the teachings of Jesus. New light was breaking forth.
This is the stock from which you come. People who were transformed in their journey with Christ and were fearless in tackling injustice, undeterred in embracing new methods to proclaim the gospel, unafraid to challenge the status quo even when declared heretics and exiled. Undaunted by the challenges of their day, they faced into them, trusting that in their walk with Christ they would be transformed and be used of God to transform the world.
During these 14 years as your General Secretary, one of my great joys has been visiting our congregations and regions across America. I am always thrilled with the many ministries of blessing that our churches provide in their local communities. The hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours that are offered serving as the hands and feet of Christ bring life to our communities, and healing and salvation to individuals that have lost their way.
We so want people to know Jesus and his saving grace. I often think of a twenty-something young man I met on a red-eye from Phoenix to Charlotte. It had been a long weekend with much preaching and work in Phoenix. As I took my seat just before midnight all I wanted to do was sleep. But just after the plane was in the air, this young man seated beside me began calling for the flight attendant to ask for a gin and tonic. Several times through the flight he would do this, waking me each time. By the time he had ordered his fourth or fifth one, he was pretty well socially lubricated and began talking to me. Actually, he began to bare his soul and the pain of his young life. He was on his way home to Charlotte, out on bail, after having been arrested for possession of marijuana. He described how he and his older brother still lived with their parents, both unemployed. “We’re both just a couple of – and he used a term I can’t repeat here, but his tone was full of self-loathing. He went on to describe his shame at never having learned to read because of a learning disability and the horror every day in school was for him as he tried to hide his problem from other students. He continued like this for quite a while, until he asked me, “And what do you do?” “You don’t want to know,” I replied.
“Oh, it can’t be that bad,” he said. “OK. I’m a Baptist pastor.” As he buried his head he moaned, “Oh, it is that bad.” Looking at me, he asked, “So preacher, what do you think?” “It’s not what I think, it’s what I know, Son,” I replied. I know this, “God loves you far more than you will ever know, and God want to help you find your way to living a life of joy rather than shame and regret.” And with that, we began a discussion about faith, Jesus and him. As we were landing, I gave him the name of one of our ABC churches in Charlotte and asked him to contact them. “These are folks who can help love you into a new way of life.” I guess I didn’t do too badly because as we pulled up to the gate he looked at me and said, “I wish I wasn’t so drunk; I’d like to talk to you some more.”
There are so many like this young man whose lives are torn up and who need to find their way back home to God. They ought to expect to find in us not judgement but love and life in Christ. For all who hunger for a way out of their destructive paths, the world needs a servant church that does not live as a gated community.
Everyone should expect to be received with love and respect in our churches. Let me re-phrase that. Everyone should expect to be received with love and respect in Christ’s church. They are not our churches. We belong to them; they don’t belong to us. Who are we to refrain from offering the mercy, the comfort, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ to any? Such is not our right for it is Christ who says without qualification, “Come unto me all that labor and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest.” “All” he says and contradicts us when we want to say, “some.”
We cannot live as a gated community. New light is breaking forth as to the breadth of the embrace of God’s love. Dare to love all fearlessly.
I am grateful that our brother, Francis, has helped focus the attention of the Christian community on Creation Care. I would remind you that American Baptists coined the word “Eco-Justice” in the 70’s. Francis has now added a formerly missing voice alongside that of the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches calling for action in earth care as an expression of Christian Faith. New light is breaking forth.
Paul contends that through Christ “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Creation is destined in Christ to experience the same release from sin and decay as are we! We cannot embrace a Dixie cup theology of use and dispose.
Regardless of where you stand on the issues of global warming, each of us as stewards is called to exercise care for this gift of God we call creation. To exercise good and responsible stewardship of this gift is to honor God who created all that is, “seen and unseen” and declared it good.
To steward this gift recognizes that we are never owners – “the earth is the Lord’s” – says scripture. It is not ours to abuse and destroy. It is God’s. Acting in justice towards our children, our grandchildren, and our great grandchildren requires us to treat the earth as a trust not a possession. The scripture’s categorization of greed as idolatry and gluttony as a sin remind us that there are limits to consumption. At this biennial we are forming an ABC Creation Justice Network. We pledge ourselves to live in the new light that is breaking forth as we fearlessly love God’s good creation.
Around the globe, religion is implicated as a source of violence. American Baptists, do not be afraid to join hands with people of other faiths to work for peace in the world. As long as people of different faiths cannot live in peace with one another, the world will not live in peace.
In the past two months, I have had two experiences that would seem at odds with each other. In the one, I was visiting Christian refugees in Jordan who had fled the scourge of ISIS. With each family we visited, the stories of suffering became more intense, more horrific. We saw and heard the impact of a destructive form of fundamentalist Islam that justifies murder in the name of God, the all-merciful. Just eight weeks later I was in Lausanne, Switzerland, gathered with Muslim clerics from the Middle East, their UN ambassador, former members of the U.S. Congress, a U.S. Rabbi and two other U.S. Christian leaders to discuss how Christians, Muslims and Jews might cooperate for peace and the common good. We must reach out to any and all who are committed to peace with Justice.
As Christians, we understand that work for peace is an expression of God’s love toward all. As Baptists we understand that it is an expression of our commitment to religious liberty. In the midst of violence in the name of God, we must allow new light to break forth.
In Lebanon, the tiny Baptist community there has been in the forefront of caring for Muslim refugees from Syria who are flooding the country. Contrary to what many would expect, Baptists in Lebanon have chosen love and cooperation over fear and isolation. As a result, many Baptist churches there now have more Muslims than Baptists in attendance in Sunday worship because the lived love of Christ is drawing them. New light is breaking forth through Lebanese Baptists into the conflict-ridden Middle East. How much more ought we to build friendships and cooperation with Muslim neighbors and mosques in our communities! Dare to love fearlessly.
We are here tonight just over a week after the slaughter of brothers and sisters at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, SC. I have been in contact throughout this time with leadership in the AME church offering them your Christian sympathies and pledging our continued work as American Baptists against racism and race-based violence. Believe me when I say, regardless of your complexion we all have skin in the game of getting this race thing right in America.
Let us not be shy. Let us be bold in declaring: Black lives matter – all lives matter. Fifty years ago, American Baptists played an important role in the civil rights movement. Today, we must find our voice anew and rededicate ourselves to the task of equality for all. We cannot sit by comfortably when so many young black men are in prison. We cannot sit by comfortably as so many die in police custody. We cannot sit comfortably by as brothers and sisters in Christ are slain in their pews because racist, white supremacist views have poisoned a young man’s mind.
Like any deadly virus, racism depends on a host in which it can live, grow and multiply. Racism depends on good people not speaking up. Racism depends on good people looking the other way. Racism depends on good people doing nothing. We can’t afford to be good people.
I want to stir up within you tonight moral indignation about how racism is indulged and tolerated and allowed to grow. I want to stir up within you tonight compassion and solidarity with those who are wounded everyday not just by guns but by attitudes, fears and stereotypes.
You’ve briefly seen my four year old grandson, Isaiah. He is bi-racial and he bears the hues and features of his African heritage. Everybody thinks he’s cute as a bug, and they are right, he is! And at age 4 he already has a heart filled with love for Jesus and people. But I worry for him. Will they think he’s cute when he is 16, 17, 18? I worry that when he’s a teenager, someone will accost him challenging him that he’s in the wrong neighborhood. I worry that when he’s a teenager women will hold their purses closer to them as they pass him on the street. I fear that as a teenager, he might be pulled over and treated unfairly by those who are called to serve and protect him. I want the best for my grandson. God wants the best for every child in America.
Jesus and the prophets teach us that love expresses itself in justice and mercy, doing the right thing by someone else. American Baptists, God calls us to do the right thing by our neighbor. When we leave here I shall be appointing an ABC Taskforce on Racism and Race-Based Violence to report back to us how we as American Baptists can more effectively confront and eradicate this scourge from our lives and our country.
Let us not just mourn the deaths in Charleston, let us take concrete steps of repentance, justice and reconciliation and let us each begin with ourselves and our attitudes towards people of other colors and ethnicities. New light must break through the pall of racism that hangs over us as a death shroud. Whatever your complexion, we all have skin in the game of getting race right in our country. New light must break through. Dare to love fearlessly.
In 2005, when we gathered at the Denver biennial, in the midst of a storm that engulfed us, I challenged you to choose the way of love. I want to leave you tonight with that challenge.
In Denver, I said: The world needs the witness of a people bound together in love, committed to the difficult task of walking with one another in the midst of strong differences. We stand at a crossroads. In our world, the path of radical discipleship, the path of radical love is the road less taken. We dare not choose another. We dare not choose the wrong road. The radical call of Jesus doesn’t make us comfortable. Take the road-less-traveled – the rich road of love of one another and service for Christ.
This road less-traveled has been the unique calling and gifting of American Baptists. For those of us called and committed to this path what blessing there is! Who would have dreamed, given our nation’s history of slavery, anti-immigrant sentiment, and suppression of women, that God could have put together a room of people like this? That’s the blessing of radical love!
For such a people as you, a people called to radical discipleship, to radical love, God has a mission!
For such a people as you, a people called to radical discipleship, to radical love, God has blessing!
For such a people as you, a people called to radical discipleship, to radical love, God has a future!