I might as well address the elephant in the room right here and now from the get-go.
The rumors are true. I was born and raised a Southern Baptist. And not only that, I was a Baptist pastor for over twenty years.
So, allow me use my first sermon to tell you how I got to this place where I am standing today, behind this particular pulpit wearing a stole with a chalice and a St. Andrews cross.
Although there many types of Baptists, I sometimes place them into two categories.
First, there’s the hard-shell variety. These are the ones who don’t drink, dance, cuss or chew or go with girls or boys who do…at least not before Noon on Sunday.
Then there’s the category that I was a proudly part of: those of the more moderate persuasion.
“Everything in moderation,” we loved to say.
“Let’s be Christian, but let’s not get too crazy with it.”
“Follow Jesus but don’t get fanatical about it.”
“Embrace the gospel, but don’t go overboard with it.”
“Be a disciple, but don’t over do it.”
“Preach the Bible, but don’t challenge anyone to authentically live the Bible.”
“Don’t upset the status quo. Don’t disturb the peace. Don’t stir things up.”
We must remember that “moderation” is the key to everything in life, especially when it comes to pastoring a church.
“Moderation” is the key to playing it safe. Moderation helps one avoid conflict. Moderation keeps your congregation comfortable, satisfied, unchanged. Thus, moderation helps pastors pay their mortgages, get their kids through college, fund their pension. Moderation makes for more pleasant Elders meetings and uneventful board meetings.
But then I started reading the likes of Barton Stone, Thomas and Alexander Campbell who were anything but moderate.
These Scottish-Americans had the audacity to preach revolutionary messages that called for a return to taking the message of the Bible seriously. They courageously denounced all creeds and confessions and radically committed themselves to following Jesus at all costs. And in so doing they were continually bucking the system, going against the doctrinal grains of the Church and defying the societal norms of the culture.
They preached against slavery. They preached for the inclusion of all Christians at the communion table. And they openly criticized mainline Christianity and anything that didn’t jive with Jesus.
And of course, the mainstream powers-that-be pushed back. They said: “Barton and Alexander, you’re taking this too far.” “You’re going out of bounds.” “You need to slow down, pump the brakes, moderate.”
But they would not bow down or back down. They stood their ground. They refused to compromise. And for so doing, they were excommunicated by the Church and labeled heretics, radicals, rabble-rousers and fools. They were called every name in the book, but one.
They were never called “moderate.”
During this same time period, other prophetic voices like William Lloyd Garrison echoed Stone and Campbell’s revolutionary opposition to the injustice of slavery.
I am aware, that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity?
I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice.
On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation.
No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hand of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen;
so don’t you urge me to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.”
After studying the forbearers of the Disciples movement, one day a verse I read in the first chapter of Ephesians nearly jumped off the page.
He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us (Ephesians 1:8).
“Lavished.” Don’t you like that? When I think of all my shortcomings and failures, I think: “Thank God that God doesn’t give grace in moderation. Praise the Lord that God just doesn’t give me a sensible amount of mercy, a reasonable amount of forgiveness, a rational amount of love. Praise God that when it comes to grace, God lavishes.
When we took our two children to the beach or to the pool when they were younger, Lori was in charge of the sunscreen. And when it came to protecting her babies, she would always lavish them with the sunscreen lotion. The poor things would be covered in white lotion in from head to toe.
And if I ever said, “Baby, don’t you think you overdid it a little with the sunscreen? Moderation, baby. Moderation is the key.”
She’d look at me as if I had lost my mind and say: “You must not love them like I do.”
When it comes to covering God’s children with grace, Paul says that God lavishes. When it comes to grace, God loves all God’s children, thus God overdoes it.
Disciples like to say that where the Bible speaks we speak, and the entire Biblical witness testifies to this lavish grace. It is a grace that is extravagant, excessive, over-the-top, overdone.
Cain killed his brother Able. Cain deserves to die. But what did God do? God lavishes Cain. Cain is exiled from the community because of his actions, but God promises to go with him and protect his life (Genesis 4).
Moses kills an Egyptian, breaking one of the Ten Commandments. But God chooses that murderer to reveal those commandments to the world and to lead the Israelites out of bondage into the Promised Land (Exodus 2).
David not only commits adultery, but kills the husband of his mistress (2 Samuel 11). Yet, Matthew proudly announces David in Jesus’ genealogy (Matthew 1).
The good news is, when it comes to forgiveness, when it comes to grace, God lavishes. God always seems to overdo it.
The story of Jesus’ first miracle says it all. When the wine gave out at a wedding party, what does Jesus do? He turns water into more wine. But not just some water into a little bit of wine. He makes, according to John’s estimate, 180 gallons of the best-tasting wine they ever had.
Now, having been raised as a Southern Baptist, I know I am not supposed to know about such things, but isn’t 180 gallons of wine an awful lot of wine? Sounds like Jesus may have gone a bit overboard.
Then, there are all those stories that he told.
The father of the prodigal son doesn’t just welcome home his returning son. The father lavishes the son. The father goes overboard: “Quickly bring out a robe, the best one, and put it on my son; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and drink and have one extravagant party!”
It wasn’t that the Good Samaritan stopped and helped the wounded man in the ditch. It was the way he lavished the man. It was the way he goes overboard with the man pouring expensive oil on his wounds, putting the wounded man in his car, taking the man to the hospital and telling the doctors, “Forget about filing insurance! Here’s all my credit cards, my debit card, everything. I’ll be back in a week, and if that’s not enough money to treat the man’s wounds, I’ll give you even more!”
And this morning we read where Jesus was teaching on a hillside and looks out at the large crowd that showed up looking for some hope. Thousands of them came from all over. They were hungry. Darkness was setting in.
The moderate disciples said: “Let’s be reasonable, sensible, judicious and send them back to town so they can eat.”
But Jesus radically takes all they have, blesses it, breaks it, and in an act that can only be described as revolutionary, feeds 5,000 people!
But the story doesn’t end there. They took up what was left over, and 12 baskets were filled. Once again, Jesus overdid it. Jesus went overboard. Jesus took it too far. Jesus lavished.
When Jesus is present, people in need, the hungry, the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the vulnerable don’t only get what they need. They are lavished.
Then, there is the story of all stories. When God offered us the very best gift that God had to offer, the gift of God’s self through Jesus of Nazareth, we reciprocated that gift with the very worst that we had to offer, the cross. But three days later, God not only raised Jesus back to life, but God gave him right back to the very ones who nailed him to a tree.
Yes, there seems to be something built right into the nature of God that tends toward graciously overdoing it.
So, as people who have been called to inherit this nature, as the Body of Christ in this world, how do we live? Are we moderate with our love? Are we discriminating with our forgiveness? Are we discreet with grace? Are we modest with mercy? Are we restrained with the good news?
Or do we truly believe that the greatest commandment is to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbors as ourselves?
Because the truth is that the church has been embarrassingly and tragically guilty of doing tremendous damage to the world, as well as to the mission of Christ, by loving God and loving others only in moderation.
I believe this is the greatest travesty in the church today, because out of any human institution on this fragmented planet, the church should be a place where all people are welcomed to join a community of love, grace, and forgiveness. Without fear of snooty smirks, judgy jeers, or having a Bible thrown upside their head, all people should feel welcomed to come as they are and honestly and openly confess their sinfulness and brokenness. And then be lavished by God’s people with love.
This is why I am no longer a moderate Baptist. But stand here today in the spirit of Stone, the Campbells, Scott, Smith, and prophetic voices like Garrison, around a table that has been lavishly prepared for all people, joining a group of Disciples dedicated to sharing the good news to this city, region and world: That when it comes to the revolutionary Word of God, when it comes to the boundless love of God, when it comes to the extravagant grace of God, when it comes to the prophetic justice of God, when it comes to the radical inclusion of God, when it comes to fighting for a world where all lives have equal value, we will not moderate. We will not compromise. We will not stand down or even slow down. We will not equivocate. We will not excuse. We will not retreat a single inch. AND WE WILL BE HEARD.
Having received your grace revealed in Christ,
having allowed your Spirit to lavish us with it,
cover us from head to toe with it,
Help us to go into the world to share it with all people,
generously, extravagantly, lavishly.
Invitation to Communion
As we gather around this table, we reaffirm our revolutionary belief that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
There is no height: no creed, no confession;
There is no depth: no doctrine, no bylaw, no tradition;
There are no powers or rulers: no politicians, no judges, no clergy;
There are no things present: no race, no gender, no orientation, no disability;
There are no things to come: no storm, no legislation, no disease, no war;
There is no life: no elder, no deacon, no Sunday school teacher;
There is nothing in all of creation, not angels, not even death itself, that can separate any of us from the love of God revealed to us in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Therefore, every Sunday we say: “All are welcome here to share this bread and this cup. And all means all.”
Commissioning and Benediction
Having received the extravagant grace of Christ,
having allowed God to lavish you with it,
cover you from head to toe with it,
Go now into your world to share with all people,
generously, extravagantly, lavishly.
And let them know that there is a church that exists in this town
that ready and willing to go overboard being like, acting like, speaking like, and loving like Jesus.
And now may the unconditional love of God,
the unrestricted grace of Christ
and the unending communion of the Holy Spirit
continue to lavish us all. Amen.