Have thine own way, Lord
Have thine own way
Thou art the Potter
I am the clay. Amen.
Some years ago, former President Jimmy Carter wrote a book entitled Living Faith. Known for his deep religious convictions, and in some quarters mocked during his presidency for his declaration that he was a born-again Christian, he was something of a curiosity as President. I found his book both informative and inspiring. In the opening pages, he writes:
In this book I explore some of the ways my Christian faith has guided and sustained me, as well as the ways it has challenged and driven me to seek a closer relationship with God and my fellow human beings.
President Carter also made a statement that seems to capture the essence of today's text. He wrote, "To me faith is not only a noun, but also a verb." He went on to say, "In Christian tradition, the concept of faith has two interrelated meanings, both implying fidelity: confidence in God and action based on firm belief."
Now for the Christian, there has always been the challenge to hold the two dimensions of faith in proper balance--being and doing. To the Christians at Rome who lived among competing cultures, loyalties, dogmas, and moralities, Paul wrote this long letter, in some ways the most complex letter he wrote. Here he reminds the church and its followers it is not enough to "be right" but to "do right." And one can turn it around and say it is not enough to do right but to be right.
President Carter's words: from belief proceeds right action.
Paul then enumerates the being and doing in such a fashion that he weaves them together so inextricably that it seems impossible to separate them. Listen:
Love - Genuine
Hate - Evil
Hold - Good
Love - One Another
Rejoice - Hope
Hospitality - Strangers
I, like others in public position, frequently have unsolicited mail telling me what to do and sometimes even where to go. Such a letter came recently in response to an article I had written following the bombing of the World Trade Center and subsequent response by our president to this terrorist attack. I suggested that God must weep in the face of the suffering and death of God's children. Then there followed two e-mails from a very irate man. The second read:
Since you weep for the children of the Godless Muslims, you should beg forgiveness of those massacred by the Twin Towers kamikazi disaster. Your misdirected sympathy for the Muslims is monstrous and unforgivable. Your view of America should be reason for you to leave this country and migrate to an Islamic nation, since you sympathize so much with them.
Paul reminds the church there are ethical implications of the faith and these result in practical applications in living.
I continue to be challenged by the mutuality of spirit-filled and racist. Let me explain.
Time and time again as a pastor, and now as a bishop, I find some of those claiming to be spirit-filled also filled with racial bigotry and prejudice. It seems to be a glaring contradiction. Persons who do not welcome others of a different race in their community, neighborhood, social organizations, work place, or church, while claiming to be full of Christ's spirit, seem so glaringly inconsistent! When I confronted one person, his response was, "Well, I'm a Christian, but...."
That's it, isn't it? Christian, but. There are times when being a Christian is impractical, inconvenient, illogical, even embarrassing--Christian, but.
In Indiana, like most states, we are in a continuing battle with those who would turn our state into an open gambling mecca. We resist as forcefully as we can against some great odds. The gambling interests have millions of dollars in lobbyists to advocate their cause.
Recently, a group of religious leaders representing a diversity of theological and denominational perspectives appealed to our governor and state legislators to resist further expansion of gambling in the state. While, generally, there has been support from the religious community, there are those who have reminded me I should stay in the church and leave politics alone. A prominent church leader and state legislator took us to task. He disagreed.
I suppose being a Christian would be a lot easier if it only involved that solitary relationship with God and did not involve an engagement with the world and its needs and its evils or involvement with others in all their imperfections. On the other hand, I've met some Christians who seem more comfortable with the engagement of the world, but find little time to spend with God.
The Scripture lesson today often goes where I would rather it not. It speaks of not repaying evil for evil--living in harmony with one another and doing good to one's enemies. I mean, "Come on--doing good to one's enemies. I'm Christian, but...."
President Carter is correct. Faith is not just a noun but a verb as well. It is what you do as well as who you are. It is who you are as well as what you do.
There are new congregational struggles taking place, it seems, in all denominations. The current battle is over what form the worship should take. Should it be traditional or contemporary or indigenous? As a bishop, I'm frequently drawn into the fray to authenticate the authentic mode of worship. While personally somewhat eclectic in my own ability to appropriate the Word of God, but leaning towards--well, I do lean. I frequently say if the form of worship does not draw you closer to God and the human family, then it doesn't matter if you sing from words on a screen or from a hymnbook. If you go in worship intolerant and come out intolerant, go in mean-spirited and come out mean-spirited, go in a bigot and come out a bigot, the form of worship has not helped much and does not mean much.
One pastor asked if I approved of worshipers lifting their hands during the worship service. I replied that I was more concerned with what they did with their hands when they come down than when they go up. I suppose all of us have our Christian, but moments.
That's why the lesson today can be instructive to all. It can point us to those unconverted corners of our heart.
It was an experience that shaped my life in ministry forever. Some years ago when I was a young pastor in Detroit, the telephone rang in the church office. The person calling identified herself as blind and living in an apartment building-actually, only blocks from our church. Due to a combination of circumstances, she now found herself with no food and no income. An expected check had not arrived. She wondered if our church could help. I took her address and told her I would come to her home with groceries. I filled a box with canned food, then went to a neighborhood supermarket and purchased meat and fresh vegetables and fruit. When I arrived at the rather large, imposing apartment building, I rang the bell to gain entrance. The manager of the apartment complex opened the door. She was white, and indeed she had been expecting a pastor but not a black pastor. We got on the elevator, and she took me to the apartment of the caller. She was white as well. We had a pleasant-enough visit, and as I was leaving, I extended hospitality by saying, "If you have no church, please feel free to visit us any Sunday, whereupon she responded, "Thank you, pastor, but I will soon be moving from this neighborhood. You see, too many niggers are moving in." Well, I was a young pastor at the time. It was the beginning of my ministry. I was in my first church out of seminary, and here was a test. Would it be a Christian, but moment?
Let us pray.
Dear Jesus, in whose life I see
All that I would but fail to be
Let thy clear light forever shine
To shame and guide this life of mine