Today marked another first for me in my new ministry as pastor of the St. Paul's Baptist Church. Although I was the officiating minister for a funeral last Saturday, today I gave my first eulogy as pastor. Mrs. Clara Gilliam Lightfoot was born in 1912 and had been a member of St. Paul's for 70 years. She had not been able to come to church for some time, but she did have the opportunity to vote in the pastoral election a few weeks ago. The deacon who provided her with the absentee ballot remarked that although she knew that her vote was by secret ballot and therefore confidential, after seh placed her marked ballot in the envelope she volunteered, "Clara Lightfoot has done something different. I just voted for the woman."
Of course I smiled to know that Mrs. Lightfoot would have been pleased with the pastor at her funeral, but more than that I was struck by what extraordinary liveliness she had even in her last weeks. If anyone has an excuse for holding on to the familiar and maintaining the status quo it is the person who has lived for 97 years. But I am thinking that the willingness to embrace new things, a delight in doing "something different" (especially when that something is a good and right thing) may very well be the reason why Mrs. Lightfoot lived as long as she did.
This week I heard several moving and challenging sermons and lectures at the Hampton Ministers' Conference. I felt convicted and encouraged by the sermons of Dr. Claudette Copeland. I reflected and repented because of the word placed in Dr. Renita Weems's mouth. And I recommitted to preaching with boldness because of what Dr. William Curtis preached. But as Dr. Copeland herself made clear in her sermon on Wednesday, sometimes the prophetic is mediated through a life. In Mrs. Lightfoot's final act as a member of St. Paul's Baptist Church, God spoke to me: No matter how old we get, we're always young enough to do something different. Message taken.
Monday, June 1, 2009
Pentecost Sunday at 10th and Wallace was a special occasion because it marked my first Sunday there as pastor of St. Paul's Baptist Church. Here's the basic sermon I preached.
In one of the most famous passages in all of Holy Scripture, the Preacher says, To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven. Text from Ecclesiastes so much lives up to the wisdom tradition that its sentiment is borrowed, its phrases cribbed and cited in everything from wedding and funeral rites to Pete Seeger lyrics. You don’t have to be spiritually astute to observe its truth. We all know that life is seasonal.
Generally, when all our seasons seem to flow predictably, the seasonal nature of life feels easy, commonplace. Peaks and troughs, ups and downs – after winter comes the spring, after spring comes summer, after summer comes fall, after fall comes winter, and then we do it all again.
But at are other times where there is breakdown, disruption, death, and destruction, then the words of the Preacher, either the biblical one or even the local ones in our pulpits seem empty.
Easy to rejoice in the cycle of seasons when the season you’re in is fruitful. But when you’re in a drought, in a desert, in the midst of the famine –
When the grass is withered and the flowers have fallen
When the leaves are brown and the trees are bare
When the ground is hard and the springs are dry
When the harvest is past and the summer has ended and we are not saved
Sometimes the winter lasts longer than three months
In those times, to hear that life is seasonal is cold comfort indeed.
Remember last year at the first signs of financial trouble? Analysts and pundits observed the declining market and described it as “correcting”. Don’t worry, they said, the economy has natural peaks and troughs. John McCain, the Republican nominee, could without shame declare himself basically ignorant about the economy and still hope to be elected president by reason of his expertise in the truly important matters, such as national security. But by the fall, when the downturn and potential recession threatened to devolve into an out and out depression, suddenly the cycle of economic seasons didn’t seem so natural, and John McCain the presidential candidate had to “suspend” his campaign to attend to economic matters. When blue-chip stock sells for a penny we realize that there are seasons and then there are CATASTROPHES.
In catastrophic times, when someone declares “Your season is coming” – nothing drowns out the demand of the question “But when?”
Nothing prompts ask the question “when” as much as our acknowledgment of a promise from God. In fact, one way to know that we really believe that God has made us a promise is that we become anxious and impatient for the promise to be fulfilled. More than the question of what, where, who, or even why or how, whenever the promise of God comes to us, it the question of when that dominates
When will I (fill in the blank)
When will we (fill in the blank)
When will the church ever (fill in the blank)
This question of when in the minds of Jesus’ disciples forms the backdrop to this morning’s text. Having seen God do the extraordinary in Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples actually grasp that God had been making them a promise that God intended to fulfill, and so they ask, “When will the restoration be?” Jesus’ instruction to them is embodied in the command for them to stay in Jerusalem and WAIT. But I can hear them traveling back to Jerusalem and spending all their time between the ascension and Pentecost asking the question, “Is it time yet?”
Time is by definition: A nonspatial continuum in which events occur in apparently irreversible succession from the past through the present to the future.
In God’s timing there is a the story of previous deliverance and salvation interwoven into the promise. There’s always a past. After all, God has been working in us for so long. And even the present glory is linked to past deliverance.
Pentecost was an ancient feast celebrating harvest, the feast of weeks measured from the barley harvest (at Passover) to the harvest of wheat (at Pentecost) also commemorating the giving of Torah (divine law)
After the disciples had gathered in obedience and handled the business of replacing Judas in their number, then the Spirit declared, “It’s time.” And I came to announce to St. Paul’s on this Pentecost Sunday that “It’s time!”
I want to make clear that there are some signs that the announcement of God’s working in our time is true. For the announcement that God is at work to be the truth then there are three things that must accompany the announcement.
First, there is divine visitation – I am so grateful that all of us have gathered this morning in the house of worship. I’m thankful for the deacons in their place, the ushers in theirs, the choir in theirs, the musicians in theirs. I’m thankful for my friends who have traveled and for this congregation who have come together in this one place and with one accord, but if GOD doesn’t show up in the building, our gathering is in vain. What we have come to do is to prepare the altar and to bring the living sacrifices of our whole selves. But we need is for God to send the fire.
When I was growing up, we sang a chorus that declared, “O Lord I come, withholding nothing. And I have but one desire. All I have is on the altar. And I pray, Lord, send the fire.”
People manufacture fire but it’s not God’s fire. People blow hot air but it’s not God wind. God’s wind blows where it wills and we hear its sound, but we cannot control it and we cannot even predict it. In fact, no matter how long we have been waiting for it, whenever it comes it still feels “sudden.”
Second, there is supernatural communication. The tongues divide and the disciples are given supernatural utterance, both the ability to speak and the words to say. Then the multicultural crowds of those who hear them are able to hear in their own languages God’s marvelous deeds of power. Some people say that the miracle was a miracle of speech, in that the disciples were ecstatically enabled to communicate in a language they had not studied. Others say the miracle was in the hearing of the listeners, that the Spirit translated for them. I am clear that real communication requires both speech and hearing, both articulation and understanding. And when God’s Spirit decides that “It’s time” God fills the spaces and makes communication across cultures and other divides possible.
This does not mean that the scene was without confusion and disbelief. God’s timing, vision, and presence activated among us will sometimes cause people to think we’ve lost our minds. But there will be others – sometimes a few, sometimes the many – who will hear for themselves and take hold of God’s promise.
Finally, the third sign of God’s timing is Christ-centered proclamation. God pours God’s Spirit out on all flesh to enable us to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. There is a divine vision for humanity, embodied and enfleshed in the life of Jesus Christ. We tell that story about his birth in Bethlehem, his openness to the outcast, his care for those who were left out. We tell the story of how much he loved us. We tell that he gave his life on Calvary, but that his story does not end on Golgatha nor in Joseph’s new tomb, but on that first Easter he arose with power. And his story still has not ended.
It’s God’s time.
It’s our time.
When is the time of restoration? Now is the acceptable time. When is the day of salvation? Today, is the day of salvation. And everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.
PENTECOST WAS A COMMENCEMENT – the first Sunday in a great new era.
Not only is there a past (history), a present (opportunity), in God alone it can be said that there is always a future (hope). Spirit that brooded over creation now dwelling in the disciples prompts us to ask “What plan is God hatching?”
The reality is that there is a cry louder and more significant even than our own cries for a change of seasons. There is a community that has looked upon the buildings called churches and community centers and perceived in them a promise from God.
Hungry ask when will be fed
Naked ask when will we be clothed
Homeless ask when will we have homes
Broken ask when will we be mended
The poor ask when will we have provisions
The oppressed ask when will we be freed
The imprisoned ask when will we be visited
The children ask when will we be educated
And our answer in the name of the Lord is “It’s time”
Yes, St. Paul’s it’s time
It’s praying time
It’s preaching time
It’s time for justice, mercy, walking humbly
It’s my time, it’s your time, it’s our time, and it’s the time.
It’s time for the wind and for the fire
It’s God’s time
It’s just time.