This fall I was asked back to my home church for their 175th Anniversary. Here is my sermon, to a Thanksgiving for the ways that God blesses the church.
"Buncombe Street, Through Faith Colored Glasses"
November 15, 2009
175th Anniversary of Buncombe Street United Methodist Church
Luke's gospel was such a success, somebody said to Luke that which nobody has ever said to me, "Why don't you write another book?"
And Luke did just that, a second volume, the Acts of the Apostles as if to say, "All that crucifixion, resurrection commotion caused by Jesus didn't end with Jesus - it continues even today in the church." Of course, by the time Luke wrote Acts, that church was nearly as old as Buncombe Street, so Luke was looking back on the first days. And you know how we often look back through "rose colored glasses."
Awe came upon everyone (in First Church Jerusalem), because many miracles and signs were done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common. They would sell their possessions and goods and disturbed the income to all, anyone who was in need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:43-47)
Wow. That's quite a church. A church where every Sunday there were miracles, a church where everybody sold what they had and gave it to the poor, a church where every covered dish supper was a Love Feast, a church that grew everyday in numbers. Wow. This passage comes right after Luke's report of Pentecost, right after Easter. It's like Luke is saying, "You want proof of the resurrection? You want undeniable evidence that the Holy Spirit really descended upon ordinary people turning them into saints? Then here it is: the history of First Church Jerusalem, a church full of miracles, amazing growth, and 100% giving to apportionments.
I wish I could have been the pastor of that church.
The majority of Methodist preachers will never serve a growing church. The average Methodist gives less than 3% of his income to Jesus. Our congregations are spending a larger portion of their congregational income on themselves than at any time in our history. Do you think Luke might be guilty of some rose-colored-glasses embellishment in his history of First Church Jerusalem?
"Day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved?" Hmm. Fully half of my churches have not added a single member in the last two years.
Back in 1965, Mr. A. M. Moseley (I still remember him a Southern gentleman) published, The Buncombe Street Methodist Story. Everybody in the church got a copy of Mr. Moseley's history of Buncombe Street.
Our Church was built on land given by Vardry McBee who donated land with but one stipulation - that we promise never to bury anybody in our front yard. We have kept that promise over the years, I think. In 1873, when a fine new building was dedicated, Mr. Mosley reports an eye witness saying, "the weather most satisfactory, the sun shining in sympathy with the day, showered bright and joyous rays." (But when the church was short on the final payment for the construction, Pastor Meynardie had all doors locked until donations closed the gap. Five persons gave a hundred dollars each and dinner was served.) By the way, on that glorious day, Bishop Doggett preached for over an hour, but Mr. Moseley says that nobody minded the Bishop's verbosity because the sermon was "brilliant."
Mr. Moseley picked 1889 as the grandest year in our church's first century. After a revival by a talented Presbyterian evangelist, Buncombe Street experienced a spike in membership and giving. That same year Rev. W. A. Rogers proudly reported that "dram drinking and profanity" were "not common" among the membership of Buncombe Street, a report that I'm sure your pastor could make even today.
"Our church, without a doubt, has been blessed with the best ministers," said Mr. Mosley. All had "that rare gift of oratorical persuasion to lift some members at times to such spiritual transfiguration that they feared to put their feet on earth again." Hmm. I remember my mother's evaluation of one of those preacher's sermons (on our way home after Sunday service) as remarkably different from Mr. Moseley's.
Only rarely does charitable Mr. Moseley admit to some less than glorious moments in Buncombe Street's past. In 1892 a financial crunch required the cessation of the of the $200 salary for paid singers. The Board asked them to accept a slightly lower salary; the paid choir took a walk. In 1912, Dr. Mark Carlisle, in a letter to the congregation, said that even though he had been sent to Buncombe Street to build a new sanctuary, he was fed up with the constant bickering and had therefore asked the Bishop to rescue him from this impossible church as soon as possible. In 1915 the Rev. B.F. Kilgo reported that Buncombe Street was a place of "aloofness and indifference" to newcomers in the congregation and if the Board proceeded to invite Evangelist McLendon to do a revival, Rev. Kilgo, who abhorred McLendon, would be absent. When the church refused to build a garage for Rev. Kilgo's new car, he built one himself in 1919. When he was forced to move in November of 1919, he refused to move unless the church paid for the garage -- $25. It was worth it to get that quarrelsome parson out of town, said one member of the Board.
Mr. Mosley tantalizingly notes that in its first 75 years Buncombe Street retained only a couple of preachers more than two years. Out of 67 pastors, only 13 managed to endure Buncombe Street four years or longer. If everything was so sunny in the early Buncombe Street, how come so few preachers wanted to stay for the fun?
I'm not accusing saintly Mr. Mosley of lying, but I do suspect him of joining St. Luke in remembering the history of the church through rose colored glasses. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that both Luke and Mr. Mosley look through "faith colored glasses." What you get, in the Acts of the Apostles or in The Buncombe Street Story is church through the eyes of faith.
Many miracles were done by the apostles. All who believed were together. They sold their possessions and disturbed the income to anyone in need.
That's not a false view of church. It's what you see when you look at church sub specie aeternatis, church as God sees church, church remembered in faith. Remember how the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb. 11:1) defines "faith" as "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen"?
Vardry McBee, was not only the man who helped birth Buncombe Street; he was also the state's largest slaveholder. But how do you read that? That this church was birthed as beneficiary of terrible social evil or that God almighty takes our wrong, and brings good out of our bad?
It all depends on how you look at it. John Calvin said that scripture is the lens, the "spectacles" through which Christians view the world.
This church, like any that has ever been, including Luke's First Church Jerusalem is a mix of glorious divine flights of Spirit and grubby descent into human muck and mire. This is not only the place where Mrs. Cureton handed me my first Bible but also where Stanley Starnes slugged me in the jaw after Sunday School. Both of those events made me who I am.
Thank God we've got a Savior who doesn't wait until we get it all together, until we are all cleaned up and spotless before he comes to us. Jesus takes us as we are, warts and all, and redeems all that we, in our sin, mess up. We never said that this church or any other is perfect; we just said that it's on the way to redemption. Revelation says that Jesus Christ manages to look at the church the same way every groom looks at his bride; as the most beautiful one in the world. This poor old, compromised tart, the church, will one day miraculously be all dolled up as nothing less than the spotless Bride of Christ.
I was invited back to Buncombe Street many years ago. After I spoke I was thrilled to see one of my old Sunday School teachers.
"Larry, thank you for what you meant to me back in the ninth grade. I will never forget that Sunday School class."
Larry responded, "Yea, I'll never forget it either, no matter how hard I try."
What? "I told Dr. Cook, I don't know anything about teenagers. I'm not that good with the Bible. Get somebody else. Cook wouldn't take no for an answer (he had too much dirt on me so I was afraid of him). That year was miserable. You kids wanted to talk more about sex than the Bible. It was awful."
"I don't remember any of that. I just remember getting a lot closer to God because of your class."
"I guess it's all in how you look at it," said Larry.
It was a Buncombe Street, Body of Christ sort of moment. Larry was right. When it comes to church, this church or any other, it's how you look at it. Often I look at my church, and see a declining, bickering, back-biting, boring all-too-human institution bent on its own demise. St. Paul looks at us and says, "You are the Body of Christ!" You're the form Jesus has taken in the world. Jesus looks at his rag-tag group of disciples and says, "I'm going to take back what belongs to me -- guess who's going to do it for me?"
It's all in how you look at it.
Back when I was in seminary at Yale (partly paid for by Buncombe Street), one night one of my seminary buddies asked where I grew up. I told him Buncombe Street Methodist Church. He responded, "You've got to be kidding? That's the name of a church? Buncombe? What were they thinking? Buncombe? St. Luke's. Trinity or something religious but Buncombe?"
Since he was from Illinois I refrained from slugging him. I said, "Look, that church believed in me before I believed in me. That church had dreams for me that I would have never dared on my own. Those people introduced me to the God I would have never met without them. You idiot."
Buncombe Street, happy 175th birthday. God give us all the eyes to see our church as Christ our Lord sees us. Amen!
--William H. Willimon
[Taken by permission from "A Message from Bishop Will Willimon," Nov. 23, 2009, North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. Visit the Bishop's blog here.]