Recorded June 14, 1977
Annual Sermon Southern Baptist Convention Kansas City, MO
In 1976, the nation pulled up a peanut plant in South Georgia, and to its amazement, 12 million Southern Baptists marched out.
They don’t know what to make of 12 million Southern Baptists, for all of a sudden, we have been discovered. Many of us have entertained foreign journalists who have come to our offices, trying to find out what Southern Baptists are all about. And those of you who have had the experience of trying to interpret our life to other people find out how difficult it is.
One foreign journalist sat in my study and kept asking me about Southern Baptists, and I kept trying to tell her about our diversity, and she kept looking at me and saying, “Strange people, these Southern Baptists.” If she thinks we are strange, she should have been here in the last hour and seen some of the things we were doing.
Our diversity is our strength. With love and reverence for those I mention, may I share with you, I think we are a very diverse people. We are as diverse as W.A. Criswell and John Claypool. We’re as diverse as Bob Naylor and Randall Lolley. We are as diverse as Foy Valentine and Adrian Rogers. We’re as diverse as Duke McCall and anybody. (He gave me permission for that and he agrees with it.)
Strange people, these Southern Baptists. We are autonomous and united. We’re independent and cooperative. We’re regionally named, but have a worldwide vision. Strange people, these Southern Baptists. We have more members than there are people, we have budgets that would stagger the imagination, programs that are the envy of IBM, institutions that cause federal bureaucrats to grow green with envy, and there is enough debt among Southern Baptists to satisfy a Democratic administration.
Strange people, these Southern Baptists. Right now, our flag is planted on 83 countries or more around the world. Where people hurt, we are organized to heal in Jesus’ name. Where the world itches, we develop a program to scratch it. We refuse to be provincial, racial or narrow in our understanding. We love the scriptures, we preach the gospel and we have a disposition for building churches. The world is finally learning that we’re not a bunch of Billy Carters, standing in front of the service station, complete with red necks, white socks and blue collars.
Strange people, these Southern Baptists. Now that we have been discovered, they have found out that we have Episcopalian money, Methodist organization, Pentecostal zeal, and in some quarters, Calvinistic theology. We have come to the national light, not by our own organizational ability, but by the providence of God.
And I believe that you can understand Southern Baptists best when you see this hour for Southern Baptists against the backdrop of what it means to understand the scriptures. For, in the backwaters of the Old Testament, there is a delightful story about Esther. You know the story of Esther in the little book. That book does not ever mention the name of God, but over the book of Esther, there is the shadow of the providence of God the whole way.
In that book there is the story of this girl who was taken into exile and then, through a series of circumstances, she becomes queen of the court. You know that Vashti, the other queen, was taken away from the court and there was no way she could have any access to the king. Word went out throughout the land that the Jews were to be killed, Haman, the prime minister, said, “We have to eradicate the Jews.” Mordecai came to Esther and said, “We have to do something about this.” Esther said, “The king has not summoned me to come into his presence.” And Mordecai said to her, “You have to go.” She said, “I can’t. I’ll lose my life.” Then, in the providence of God, Mordecai said something that will last in the minds of Christian people forever For he looked at her and said, “Esther, when they start killing Jews around this place, they’re not going to spare you. God will save his people somehow. But who knows, Esther, whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this.”
I believe that’s God’s sure word for Southern Baptists at this hour. I believe that’s God’s word for us at this time. I believe that, like David, we stand at Bethlehem, sought by Samuel with the cruse of oil for the anointing. I believe that Moses had it in his mind as he stood before the burning bush. He knew that he was being called by the providence of God to go deliver his people. And we’re being called by God to deliver our nation from her secular pharaohs.
I believe that Southern Baptists are like Nehemiah, who are given a chance to rebuild the Temple that lies in disarray because of the secularism of our day. I call on Southern Baptists in this hour to be like Daniel and opt for the disciplined place. And I call on Southern Baptists to understand that God may have raised us up, but God can bring us down. Our God has a history of taking people to do a task, and if they don’t do it, his history is to remove those people. Our Bible says something about lampstands being removed if they don’t burn. Didn’t Jesus say something about cities set on a hill that are to burn brightly? Don’t we read in the Bible that God talks about privilege and responsibility? Are we not a city set on a hill?
Amos said to Israel on the behalf of our God, “You only, have I known of all the families of the earth, therefore will I punish you for all your iniquities.” Didn’t Jesus say, “Everyone to whom much is given, of him much shall be required”? If a clear reading of the scriptures is correct, if we have interpreted our day right, isn’t it time that we understand now that the convention will stand, as Esther, and I will take the place of Mordecai and in this hour I want to call this convention to do the thing that God has laid upon its heart. I want you to see that where there is a need and an ability to meet a need, that is a clear calling from God. That’s what’s before us — the need of this world. Our ability to meet it and God’s calling is before us.
Let’s talk about the need. For those of you keeping score, this is point number one. I want us to see the need. Now we can spend a lot of time today talking about the peripheral needs that face us. We can talk about all the symptoms of the diseases that face our nation. We can talk about the things down underneath that somewhere are near the heart of it. But let’s cut through all of that and cut to the core of it. Let’s see what the real needs of the people who sit in our pews and who walk our streets are.
The real need is the fact that we live in a nation and among a people who have lost their sense of meaning. We live among people now who really don’t know where life is. We have gone to the trough of secularism so much that the scriptures of our universe have been pulled down. People don’t understand their lives anymore because secularism has not given them an answer. And they are blown around our nation as dry leaves before the wind.
We are not man come of age. America is not man come of age, but America is simply primitive man who has learned to shave and use deodorant. We are empty, gray-flannel savages with sophisticated tools for destroying one another. We live longer and better, but we are frightened and disturbed, rebellious and alienated. We can bear great physical and spiritual hardship in America, but we cannot live without a sense of meaning. We have worshipped before the great god of affluence, only to find that the great god of affluence has not paid anything to us. We have found out that satin and gold does not answer the basic question, “What meaning does life have?”
When I look at America, somehow it seems to me that I see so many overweight singers like Peggy Lee, standing there in a monotone, singing out to the world after they’ve gathered in all their silk and their gold, and everything to show that they’re affluent, and she simply sings, “Is this all there is?”
I have seen doctors, I have seen workers with higher wages, I have seen people from all walks of life, who simply say, “Is this all there is?” Another rung on the ladder, another garden party, another bridge club — it all becomes as empty as the beer cans that line our highways. Bigger and better is not where it is.
Maybe Freddie Prinze is everyman. Maybe Freddie Prinze is everyman. Maybe we ought to erect a statue to Freddie Prinze as the one who has captivated and caught up the idea of our day, and that is, he hit it big early. He got to the top. He found the money, only to find that there was nothing there. And he took his life in despair in the midst of it all.
We’ve cleaned up meaningless theological clutter, only to find out the house is haunted by seven times as many demons as we got rid of.
Now there’s one other need I want to call to your attention, and that’s the need that these people who’ve lost their sense of meaning are now trying only to survive. I was on a television program at the first of this year and we interviewed a man and asked him what he was thankful for as he looked into the new year. The man thought for a minute and said, “I’m glad I survived.” I didn’t like what he said. I think I know why I didn’t like it, but down in my heart, something came up and said, “I don’t like that.” We received more mail from the statement he made about the feeling that he was grateful he had survived than we did from anything else.
I look at the people who sit in the pews of my church — some of them well-dressed, they’re from all walks of life. They’ve come from every circumstance. They’ve had their fingers caught in the machinery of life, and as they come there, they have a sense of “just hanging on.” There are too many people out there who are just hanging on.
You remember Theodore Dreiser’s great little story? It’s about the man at the pet shop who put a tank out on the sidewalk in front of the pet shop. And in the tank he put a big squid, right out of the ocean, and a lobster. These two natural enemies were to come together and fight it out. And everybody from the town came to see these two natural enemies fight.
As they came to watch these two natural enemies go at it they made their bets. The old squid began to move in on the lobster, and the lobster with his plate of armor around him just simply got into the corner and the squid went after him. And they said, “The squid’s going to get that lobster!” The squid went after him and he pushed those big arms out over to where the lobster was, and the lobster simply reached up and started clipping away at him. Then the squid filled the water with ink and went back to his corner.
Day after day the good ol’ boys came down to watch the battle between the squid and the lobster. Day after day they came to see this fight, but they saw that the squid that seemed to have so much and was pushing the lobster into the corner, but couldn’t quite defeat him. And when he did this, the lobster came back and simply took a defensive stance.
Presently, after a week of this battle between the squid and the lobster, they noticed that the squid, with his big arms, was wounded and bleeding. Some of the arms were cut off. They noticed that the secretion glads within his body that put the ink into the water were totally exhausted, and the old squid was over in the corner of the tank, given out. And the good ol’ boys were there that day when the lobster, realizing that he had worn down his prey, started moving across the bottom of the tank and went in for the kill.
There are doctors and lawyers and school teachers and career people, there are those who are rank sinners and there are those who are caught with a sense of nothingness who sit in our pews, and they have that feeling — another sales quota, another problem with teen-agers, another sense in which we are being pushed to go and go. Another payment to make before it wears out. And it seems as though they can’t make it. There are young sophisticates in your churches and in our world that have paid their debts to secularism. They’ve opted for it only to find that they are no match for this life. And then, as they try to survive, they feel as though the lobster is moving in on top of them.
How do you speak to this world? How do you speak to a world that is filled with empty, meaningless people who are trying to survive? How do you speak to people who, in order to find meaning, have opted to destroy themselves with all things we consider to be wrong? There are needs. We have the ability to meet those needs. May I outline how I see that we are to meet those needs?
There’s a little book that I have in my desk drawer in the study. It’s a book I read often for humor and insight is focused nicely in it. It’s entitled, “Children’s Letters to God.” One letter to God in this little book said, “Dear God, some of my friends say that you’re not real. If you are real, you’d better do something quick.” I believe Southern Baptists are in the same circumstances. If we’re for real, we’d better do something quick. Southern Baptists have been sheltered from the ravages of theological liberalism. And like locusts, this liberalism has eaten the heart out of other communions. Now, we may have produced some provincialism, and narrowness and some racism, but you can pluck those things out if you have a healthy crop. But if the crop is diseased, there’s nothing to pluck out.
Southern Baptists have never thought that man was perfectible. We have seen man’s capacity for evil and we are frightened by it. We have seen him build a garden of Eden and destroy it. And to man’s search for meaning, we bring an unyielding, clear-eyed experience of grace and affirmation. Man’s capacity for evil frightens us, but God’s capacity for grace encourages us. We speak to the ghettos of the soul.
As a nation, we have lingered too long at the table of secularism, but Southern Baptists are naive enough to believe that God, in His infinite mercy and power, can change men. God can change nations, and God can change our world. To God’s call at this hour, it is imperative that we answer in the affirmative. But if we do it, we’re going to have to pull up our white socks and we’re going to have to lose our massive corporate inferiority complex. We’re going to have to realize the investment that our God has in us, and then we’re going to get it to pass.
I heard Alan Watts, the Zen Buddhist, lecture in our city before he died, and when he came to our city he said to a group of us -- some were Christian and some were not -- he said, “If I were a Christian, I would take the resurrection and I would tell the world about it.” But he said, “You Christians act like you’re embarrassed by the resurrection.” I think Alan Watts understood more of the gospel than some of us do.
I look at our institutions and I ask myself, “Why are we powerless?” What about the powerlessness of our churches? We can build buildings, we can create bureaucracies, we can control wealth, we can master programs, and then did ever so many labor so much to prove so little.
Jesus said, “Without me, ye can do nothing,” but we have proven we can build buildings without him. We can issue position papers without him, we can structure committees without him, sometimes we hold conventions without him, but Jesus says, “Without me, ye can do nothing.” And I think the bottom line of all of it is, that we had better understand where our source and strength is. It is in the resurrected Christ. We’re needing in this hour to rediscover the power of the resurrected Christ that moves among us.
We’re common people. We’re people that are in the average walk of life, but somehow God has a way of endorsing that. My life wish for the church and for the Southern Baptist Convention is that we would come to the place where Christ is rediscovered. A dead church cannot witness to life, but a living church can. A dead society will respond to a living church, a living Christ, and that’s bold.
Now, I have some life wishes. My life wish for pastors. I’ve been a pastor all my life, it seems. My life wish for pastors is that I wish we could rediscover the essentials of our calling. I hope that we can be delivered from the errand boy mentality. I don’t believe God called us to deliver Sunday school literature. I hope that somewhere along the line we can rediscover the joy of serving living bread to dying men. I hope that our churches can be revitalized because we quit trivializing the gospel. “The preaching of the word of God,” said Martin Luther, “is the word of God.”
Now my life wish for the agencies. Now, I love the agencies. I have staked my life and professional calling in the community of our agencies. I don’t believe God is going to do it in any kind of para-church organization. He’s going to do it through his churches and their agencies. I hope to be with the agencies all my life, particularly the Annuity Board, all the way to the end of my life. My life wish for the agencies in the midst of “Bold Mission Thrust” is that I want to see the agencies make some mistakes. I think the day of risk management is over, and in the light of “Bold Mission Thrust,” risk-taking is in.
I want to see the agencies waste a little money, trying something new. I want us to say to them, in one way or another, “If you’re going to knock the ball over the center-field fence, get up to bat and swing at it.” Tell us you're going to do it like Babe Ruth did. He may have had the home run record, but he also had the strikeout record. Be he always came to bat. If you’re going to play it safe, you don’t even dress out or come to the ballgame. I think our agencies need to understand that. We’re with them as they go on and try bold things. My life wish for the agencies is they will quit playing it safe and get bold We need to devise a workable urban strategy, all over the world and all across the United States. We need to get into the ghettos of the mind. And we need to understand, and I say this with love — all of it with love and compassion — we need to understand that 7 percent of America live like “Home Life Magazine.” The rest of America lives with some kind of brokenness, according to “Time Magazine.”
We need to come to the place where singles and divorcees, and people who are broken by the machinery of this life, somehow have some kind of redemption in all of our churches and agencies. When will we learn to speak to the woman at the well? My life wish for the agencies is that “Bold Mission Thrust” will not be a retreading of “A Million More in ’54.” Let’s not drag out Let’s use our massive organization genius to break new ground. Let’s break the barriers telling them of the resurrected Christ who walks and brings vitality, redemption and cleansing and wholeness to all men. If “Bold Mission Thrust” is only a resurrection of the rusty swords of other days, then pull down the banners! Let’s just pull them down now! Let’s pack up the posters. Do away with the video, pack our baggage and get ready for exile.
I believe that God is giving us one last hour at this time. People are asking, “Is there a God and does he care?” and 12 million Southern Baptists have been commissioned by God to say, “The Bible says ‘Yes.’” There is a need. We have the ability to meet that need.
Now, what about the calling from God? I want to tell you one story. I’ve got time to tell it, I didn’t put it in the manuscript, but I want to tell it. I want to tell it because I love to tell it, and I believe with Charles Spurgeon that you should be willing to tear your homiletic robe any time to pull a lamb out of the thicket. I’ll tear it today to tell this story.
About a year-and-a-half ago, my wife and I were invited by President Ford to represent him at the inauguration of Dr. William Tolbert in Liberia. It was an exciting day. We had about 36 hours to prepare. We went from cold Atlanta where there was ice on the streets, to Liberia West Africa for the inauguration of a Baptist president of an African nation. You will recall Dr. Tolbert had served as a president of the Baptist World Alliance. A Christian statesman. A magnificent leader of that country.
When we arrived there, the ambassador met us, and on the way into town from the airport, he gave us the itinerary. He said, “Here are the things you’re going to be doing while you’re here.” And he went down the list. We had some diplomatic receptions, there were some parties, all these things. I said to him, “Quite frankly, Mr. Ambassador, my seminary education did not prepare me to go to diplomatic receptions. But I notice on the list you have here the fact that we’re going to a prayer meeting at the Zion Praise Baptist Church in Bentol, Liberia, for the president. Now my seminary education got me ready for that.” He said to me, “Not in Liberia West Africa it didn’t.”
The next day, we arrived out in this marvelous place where we were to go. We were so far back in the jungle they were pumping sunshine down in there. When we arrived at the church, it looked like it had been issued by the Sunday School Board. It had a Training Union and Sunday School board inside, a church covenant hanging in the middle, and 20 deacons out front smoking.
The Liberians are marvelous people, but there’s one thing they don’t do. They do not count the house accurately. They always overbook. A church that would seat about 600 had about 6,000 in it, it seemed. We were wall-to-wall people, front and back, with hardly any room to move. We were packed in there, the heat was heavy outside and inside the air conditioner gave up. We waited and waited and finally I turned to the ambassador and said, “What’s going to happen? Why the delay?” And he said, “I didn’t tell you, but the president went by Roberts Field, the airport, to pick up our honored guest.” I said, “Who is he?” He said, “You’ll see.”
Fifteen or 20 minutes went by. We were an hour late already. Presently I heard the entourage coming up outside that was bringing the honored guest. When the cars stopped you could hear the doors open, you could hear the excitement of the crowd. And then, all of a sudden, we heard a noise in the vestibule of the church and then the choir from the University of Liberia that was seated on the platform saw our honored guest first. And there, standing in the door when all of us turned to reflect their excitement was himself, Idi Amin of Uganda. Now, at this time Idi Amin was the leader of the Organization of African States. This was a prestigious position. He was the senior diplomat there. It was the first time I had seen him and he had just asked the Queen of England to apologize to him and his status among black African nations was very high.
Amin came down that aisle to take his seat at the front and all of us got very excited, but very frightened. I looked at this man, and I don’t know what you think of him, but I know that when I saw him he appeared to be 12 feet tall. He’s only 6 feet 8, he weighs 300 pounds. He used to be a boxer. He’s all chest — all the way to his knees. He was wearing an Eisenhower-style field marshall’s jacket and it was covered with medals on the chest. His chest looked like the grill of a well-traveled Mercedes Benz.
They brought him to the front and sat him to the left of the Lord’s Supper table, and this massive man sat in a chair designed for WMU presidents -- that means it was a very small chair. I was seated on the front row. Since we were the senior diplomatic delegation and he was the senior delegate from all over the world, I was seated in the front row on the corner. And when he sat down, we were directly eyeball-to-eyeball, about seven feet apart. Now that’s a fearsome thing. I got to looking around in all directions, and Amin was looking around, and finally we looked at each other, and I said, “Hi Idi, how’re you doing?” Now, he speaks impeccable English. I forgot to tell you, that on each hip was a pearl-handled .45 revolver. Now, everything I tell you is true, but that’s truer than a lot of the things I’m going to tell you.
We went through the liturgical service. Moments went on. Finally, (Rev. Canon) Burgess Carr, chairman of the all-Africa Council of Churches, came to preach. We were an hour late starting, and hour into the service. Idi Amin and I have been looking at each other for a solid hour, and I turned to the ambassador and said, “Surely he’ll just give us a devotional thought and get us out of here.” He said, “You’ve never been to prayer meeting in West Africa. We’re going to be here a while.”
He came and slapped an inch-thick, closely typed set of notes down onto the platform and started preaching. I turned to my wife and said, “This man’s done his homework.” He took his text from Joel 2:25, “I will restore to you the years the locusts have eaten.” That’s a great text and he started doing all the things he needed to do to develop it. He told us about locusts. Then he began telling us about some of the locusts — some of the locusts — in Africa. Now, he was at the pulpit, Amin was at one side of the Lord’s Supper table, Tolbert was at the other side of the Lord’s Supper table. Idi Amin had guns at each side. Tolbert -- who as our president -- had a swagger stick with an ivory head of Christ on the end of it.
When Burgess began to apply the text of the sermon, he turned and looked directly at Idi Amin, and said, “I want to talk about the locusts of dictators who steal countries.” Idi Amin turned and looked at him, and he looked at Amin, and I prayed. And he started in on Amin. He used the Colonel Sanders method — he took him apart and the joints and fried him, right there in front of us. All up and down the congregation you could hear the rustling of diplomats who didn’t know what to do about this. I didn’t think he would ever get through telling us of the sins of Idi Amin.
He told us of 100,000 people who Idi Amin had taken for a ride out in the country and left them out there, hither and yon. He told us about all the things Amin had done, and Amin would turn and look at him, and then he would turn and look at me, and I said, “Look, I’m a diplomat today. That’s his problem.” This went back and forth between Amin and Burgess, and he just stayed on him, and Amin would turn and look. And then there was a change that came over Amin, for he’s an impractical, erratic man. Burgess said something to Amin that he almost couldn’t tolerate. I didn’t know what it was. But Amin turned and -- as I stand here -- I saw his left hand hit his revolver and I said, “Oh Lord, not here! I didn’t come 9,000 miles to be killed by Idi Amin out in the bush.”
Then he (Burgess) went to Tolbert. Any good leader has problems and Burgess Carr knew where they were. And then he turned to the diplomatic corps and took us apart country by country. Then he looked at the local Liberian government officials and he took them apart. Over on the right happened to be seated the international business community that had come in from all over the world to protect their investments there, and he started talking about them. When it was all over, we had been torn to pieces by the word of God, and in the midst of that he preached the gospel.
When the service was over, we got into our cars to leave. I was totally exhausted. I turned to my wife and said, “What happened?” She said, “I’m not sure.” We talked about it on the long ride back to the hotel. And then it began to clear. It was as though, for a moment, the veil had been pulled away, and se could see what was going on. I want you to think with me for a moment what it would be like if God had somehow brought a parable to that little jungle church to be transported to the world.
Who was there? All the power bases of the world were assembled. On the speaker’s left happened to be the diplomatic corps. In the center they had local governmental leaders. In the right side were people who thought the power was in the dollar. Then we had two styles of political leadership — one had a gun, one had a swagger stick with the head of Christ on the end of it as his symbol. All of them were at one level. Then, towering over this was the man of God who came with the word of God, standing over all the assembled power bases.
We were being given a vision of the apocalypse. We were being given a vision of the life to come. We were being given a vision of the mind and hand of God. Then, what did the preacher of the word of God do? He simply opened the scripture and let it bring every power base there to its knees.
Diplomacy, you’ll not save the world. You may give us a few more days, but you’ll not bring the world to the place with a new life. You’ll not give meaning. Local governmental officials, you may give us some order, but you’ll not bring new life to man. Businessmen, there will be no new life coming from you. You may finance our buildings, but you won’t bring life. Dictators, you may steal countries, but you don’t bring life, you take it.
And those who try to lead as best they can know that the power is not there. In Tolbert’s office he told me of his commitment to Jesus Christ, knowing that’s where the real power is. And then it occurred to me, that line in the New Testament, that line that Jesus gave us, “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.” It’s in the word of God. And that’s what God has put into our hands. That’s what he sent us out to use. It is not in those other areas. It is not with dictators, or government, or business. It is with the word of God and God has armed us with it.
Oh, Southern Baptists! Listen to me! Who knows? Who knows whether we have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?
(Taken from an audio recording with minor editorial revisions.)