When Moses descends the mountain carrying the two tablets of revelation that God has given him, only to see his people cavorting around the graven image of a golden calf, his uncontrollable fury compels him to hurl the divine tablets to the ground and shatter them. He marches into the camp, takes the golden calf, grinds it into powder, mixes it with water and forces the entire camp of Israelites to drink the bitter liquid. But then he goes to his brother Aaron and says, “What in the world were you thinking? What did the people do to you that you led them to commit this great evil?” Aaron responds, “Whoa, bro, don’t get mad at me. You know how these people’s hearts are set on evil. They wanted a god similar to the gods worshipped by the pagan people around us. I just consented to their request. I told them that if they had some gold to give it to me. And they did. Then I threw it in the fire – and out came this golden calf.”
What Aaron said was true. The people did want a graven image to worship, and he did collect their gold and threw it in the fire, and a golden calf did emerge. But he omitted a key element in the narrative. He left out the fact of his own personal agency and action in the matter. He omitted the crucial detail that he had personally molded the gold into the shape of a calf, then removed it and set it on a pedestal. He told Moses, “All I did was throw the gold in the fire and out came this calf.” But Moses was no fool. Hearing his brother’s account he couldn’t help but think, “It didn’t just get that way.”
Unfortunately, human nature has not changed since Aaron’s day. We all tend to deny personal responsibility in the face of our own culpability. In fact, our society has created a host of excuses that serve as exculpatory factors to explain away bad choices: ‘Oh, he/she is just a product of a bad environment.’ ‘He/she just fell in with the wrong crowd.’ ‘He/she acted on the basis of the wrong information.’ In the wake of committing some transgression, our first impulse is like unto Aaron’s desire to escape blame by the easiest means possible. Like Aaron, we say, ‘Oh, these things just happened. Don’t blame me.’ But in accounting for our own behavior we leave one factor out of the equation, the element of our own personal action and responsibility.
We look around at our world and behold its brutality, greed, injustice and deceit. We want to say like Aaron, ‘It all just happened. We threw our world into the fire and this is what emerged.’ But we know that the truth is otherwise. The brutality, greed, injustice and deceit of our world stems from humanity’s misuse of its freedom. There is an inescapable corollary that should logically follow: if human beings can misuse their divine freedom to make this mess, human beings can employ their divine freedom and gifts to transform it.
In my long career as a minister of Christ’s Gospel I have noticed a phenomenon that runs contrary to what seems common sense. You would think that people who are completely materialistic, who have no relationship with God and think this world is all there is – such people should be motivated to improve their society. After all, if this world is all there is, you would think that they would want to make it the best it could be. On the other hand, you would think that Christians, who see their ultimate destiny in God’s heavenly fellowship, would spend little time addressing the destructive structures of this world. But in fact, completely materialistic people are by and large so selfish in their orientation, so fixated on what is good for them and their close circle of attachments, that they invest little energy in trying to improve society. If life is meaningless, why bother to transform it? Of course, there are those who try to embody divine virtues without realizing that these virtues are in fact divine in origin – but those people are an entirely different sermon. However, as Christians we see ourselves as on a divinely-ordained mission, to share redemptive Good News with all the world and to transform the world in accordance with the virtues of God’s Kingdom. We feel under obligation to shape the world in accordance with God’s purpose for creation.
The twelve disciples upon whom the Holy Spirit fell on Pentecost Sunday – and the thousands who shared that transformative experience with them and formed the core of the early church – knew from the moment that Christ’s Spirit fell upon them that they were commissioned to publish God’s Good News throughout the world and to transform the world in accordance with divine values. The moment Christ’s Spirit fell upon them that Pentecost morning, they knew that dream was achievable. Of course, nobody else thought so. The Jewish officials who had put Christ to death in hopes of squelching his movement didn’t think so. The Roman legions who exercised political sovereignty over the region didn’t think so. But those early Christians, fueled by the Spirit’s power, knew from Pentecost forward that they had a job to do. They could envision the day when the Good News of Christ would be proclaimed in every corner of the world and the fellowship of Christian believers, however far-flung, would be bound by the kinship of the Spirit. Implementing God’s Kingdom was attainable. But the world wouldn’t just get that way. Those Christians would have to make it happen.
I think this morning of Dr. Martin Luther King’s ‘Pentecost moment.’ He had come home late one night in my hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, only to pick up the phone and hear, “Boy, if you don’t stop riling things up around here, you and your family won’t leave town alive.” His young wife and daughter were already asleep. He sat down at his kitchen table and thought of how easy it would be for some man of hatred to take away everything he cherished. He thought, “I can’t call my Daddy; he’s too far away; I’m too old to call my Mama.” He felt utterly alone. Then, Dr. King reasoned, “You’ve got to call on Something, Someone that can make a way out of no way. . . I discovered that religion had to become real to me, and I had to know God for myself.” He prayed aloud, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord I must confess that I’m weak. I’m faltering. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak, they will begin to get weak.” Then Dr. King’s Pentecost moment happened. He said, “It seemed to me at that moment I could hear an inner voice saying unto me ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you even until the end of the world.’ That young black minister knew in that moment that Christ’s Spirit had become real to him and would never leave him alone. Pentecost became real for him then. From that moment on, Dr. King knew that the dream of racial justice was attainable. But it wouldn’t just get that way. Dr. King and others would have to invest their lives in a movement that would make that dream happen.
My thoughts turned to Dr. King and his intense experience of God’s providence for him as I pondered the state of our world and our church on this Pentecost Sunday, 2021, as we are beginning to emerge from this pandemic. Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic has placed great stress upon our world, upon our country, upon our city, and upon our church. Certainly the life of this church and indeed the life of every church has been irrevocably changed by this pandemic. In fact, some churches will not survive the strain this pandemic has placed upon them. Some will not rise to the challenge of establishing and embracing a new future. Some will not even recognize that a new day has come. The question looms, ‘Will we recognize that the opportunity has come for us to for forge a new and vibrant future?’ Just as importantly, to what degree are each of us willing to take responsibility for helping forge that new future? We want to see Vineville Baptist Church emerge from this pandemic stronger and more vibrant and more effective than ever. But we must also recognize this unassailable truth: it won’t just get that way. Each of us has to ask ourselves, ‘What am I willing to do, what am I willing to invest, to make Vineville Baptist a more vibrant family of God?’ Wishing won’t make it so!
I think of the four men who constituted the faculty of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (where I was trained) after the Civil War. They had moved their campus from South Carolina to Louisville, Kentucky, in hopes of attracting financial backing. But resources were scarce, and students were scarcer. Only a handful of young men sought a theological education. Most potential donors claimed to be bankrupt. The future of the seminary looked bleak. Nevertheless, the four man gathered together one afternoon and made a covenant: “Let us resolve that this seminary may die; but let us resolve that we will die first.” They realized that the circumstances surrounding the seminary appeared dismal. But they envisioned a brighter day — and they knew it couldn’t just get that way. They had to pledge their every resource to helping the school achieve a transformed future – and they did.
I don’t know if the Family Circle comic strip is still in circulation, but periodically the cartoonist would depict a scene of mayhem, where all manner of things had gone wrong around the house – a glass would be broken in one room, milk spilled in another, trash scattered on the floor in another room. And a parent would cry out, “Who did this?” From around the house would come the disclaimer, “Not me! Not me! Not me!” Then, in the bottom of the cartoon the artist would draw a little ghost bearing the logo, “Not Me.”
What I am suggesting is just the opposite of that cartoon. I think of the challenge that Moses issued his people after they fallen into idol worship. He asked, “Who is on the Lord’s side?” People began to answer, “I am.” He asked, “Who will do the Lord’s work?” Came the answer: “I will.” Those questions loom large in this uncertain hour. I’ve been working with the Nominating Committee as they seek to fill a host of leadership positions throughout this church. All too often the response the Committee has heard is, “I can’t.” We need people willing to answer that question, “I can. I will.” We all want more children in the children’s department. But that can only happen by our identifying families in our neighborhoods or in our circle of acquaintance who have children and asking them to come to church with us, or attend our WOW sessions on Wednesday night this summer. We need people to say, “I can do that.” We want more youth in our congregation. One way that can happen is for some of our youth to commit to becoming effective recruiters. They all have friends who don’t go to church, and no one attracts young people like other young people. We need youth who are willing to say, “I can do that.” We need people whose witness has a magnetic quality, attracting people wherever they might encounter them. Sure, some of these folks we invite might wear different kind of clothes or a different style of hair than we are used to – but that is just fine. We need folks who are willing to live with a brand of inclusive Christianity that attracts rather than repels, a Christianity that, as the choir sang last week, “draws the circle wide.” The circle of God’s grace needs to be drawn wide!
This pandemic has taken its toll upon our older generation. Some who were active before it started can hardly muster the strength to attend now. Some will never be able to be active again. Such is the arc of time. But we have great strengths in this fellowship, too, a gifted, committed, creative minister to children and families named Leigh Halverson, a gifted minister of music and youth in Angela Blizzard. Maybe it’s easy to think they are so talented that they can build great programs without help. But that’s not how we will achieve the dreams we dream. It won’t just get that way by their work alone. They need volunteers. They need volunteers who will volunteer to recruit more volunteers! It’s not enough to say, ‘Now that the pandemic rules are changing, we can increase our Sunday School numbers.’ Ask yourself, who was the last person you invited to the banquet table of grace that is Vineville Baptist? Name in your own mind the last visitor who attended with you. We all say, ‘Oh, I want Vineville Baptist to thrive as we emerge from this crisis.’ That is a wonderful sentiment. But it won’t just get that way. We have to band together to make it happen. Dr. King had a favorite saying, “Christians are to be the light of the world. But only a few Christians are truly headlights. Most of them are tail lights.” How many of us are willing to be Christians who are in the forefront of changing history? Or are we going to be those Christians oriented only around the past?
Some of you know that my dog Jack and I walk most every morning down by the river on the Spring Street trail. So we have a bird’s eye view of the construction on the new bridges and roads that are being widened and constructed. I used to think that all this construction would be finished by the time I retire. Now I am beginning to wonder if it will be finished by the time I die. But you can be sure of this fact: when those bridges and roads are finally widened and constructed, it won’t be long before none of us remember what the landscape looked like years ago. Nobody will remember the dismal logjams of the past. So, too, the intersection of Vineville and Pierce is our little corner of the world. No one will remember what we once were. They will only remember what we become. So let us resolve to transform this corner into a vibrant witness for Christ – or die in the effort. Because that is what we all want. But it won’t just get that way.