For the last 2½ years, I’ve had the opportunity to serve as interim pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in West Asheville. January 26, 2020 was my last Sunday with them. Here are a couple of outtakes from my sermon for that day, “Living is Jesus,” which drew themes from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.
Needing Each Other
None of us is, can be, who we most truly and deeply are without each other. We depend on community. We can’t flourish in isolation. Separation is a costly illusion, a deadly deception. We live in and through and with each other.
We’re not meant to do life alone and on our own. We long to extend and receive grace; to show and to feel mercy; and to hold and be held in understanding. We crave acceptance and yearn for love, gifts we cannot give ourselves unless others give them to us first.
That doesn’t mean community is easy. After all, it’s made-up of beautiful but broken people like us—people who disappoint and wound each other. Across these decades of ministry, I’ve made decisions that were unwise and taken actions I regret.
We learn, by grace—the grace of God and the grace of God’s people—even from our failures. Despite, and, in some ways because of, the difficulties of church life,
I am grateful for friends and partners who, from the first day until now, in churches large, small, rural, suburban, and urban who have helped me be who I could never have been without them—without you.
Yearning for Divine Love
Followers of Jesus learn to love wisely and to think compassionately—to love God with all that they are and have—body, mind, soul, and spirit, and to love their neighbors as themselves. We need emotion and reason: a thinking heart and a feeling mind.
When I was a teenager, I had trouble fitting together what I was learning from books and in school and what I had been taught, or what I thought I had been taught, in Sunday School and sermons. I asked a pastor to help me, but what he said and did drove me away from the church for a few years: he told me that it was a sin to doubt, that I needed to stop asking so many questions, and that I should just trust what the Bible said, which meant, I learned, to trust what he and others like him said the Bible said. When I left his office that day, I resolved never to go back to church. A god who gave us minds but didn’t want us to use them was a god in whom I could not believe.
In college, teachers, outside of class, showed me a different way to deal with my questions, a way that engaged, rather than rejected, reason and knowledge; that saw doubt as part of faith, not its opposite; and that saw all truth, wherever we find it—in science, in philosophy, in art and literature, and, even, in other religions, as God’s truth. “I am the truth,” Jesus said. Whenever you find something to be true, you’ve found something divine. “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,’ he said. There is nothing, finally, to fear from truth. It is liberating and life-giving.
I’ve wanted, and I’ve worked, for church to be a place where it is safe to ask any question or to raise any doubt and where people pray, without embarrassment and with encouragement, “I believe; help my unbelief”—“I trust; heal my lack of trust.”
I’ve also tried to make it clear that knowledge is always for the sake of love; indeed, everything serves love. If the truth we think we know turns us aside from any of God’s children, causes us to be stingy with mercy and forgiveness, stunts our growth in compassion, makes us withhold grace and acceptance, or gives us permission to be harsh and condemning, then the truth we think we know isn’t the truth after all.
The greatest truth, after all, is that God is love.
Our relentless search for knowledge and truth is, at bottom, a restless quest for love. The wisest and best thing St. Augustine said was in a prayer: “Great are you, O Lord, and greatly to be praised . . . You move us to delight in praising You; for You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
We were made by God, in God, and for God, which means we were made in love, by love, and for love.