This sermon (because it is a sermon though it was not given as the official sermon) was delivered by Rev. Howard Roberts on June 15, 2014)
What a pleasure it is to be here and to see your faces. I’m delighted to see so many familiar faces and to see so many new faces. Seeing new faces clearly indicates this is a dynamic and not a static congregation. There has never been anything static about Ravensworth Baptist Church and I would not expect there to be anything static about it now.
I am Howard Roberts and I’m a recovering Christian. For forty-five years I served as a minister-35 of those years I served Baptist congregations, this being one of them, and the last 10 years, prior to retiring 3 years ago, I served United Church of Christ congregations.
I grew up in Monticello, KY, a small, rural, county seat town midway between Lexington, KY and Knoxville,TN. My family was active in the First Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist congregation.
As I contemplated and then entered ministry as a vocation, I thought that theological principles were clear, that Christianity had the truth, and that spiritual, moral, and ethical decisions were black and white, and there were no gray areas. My how my mind has changed!
The term “fundamentalism” was not in vogue in daily comments and conversations about religion in the 1960s, but the attitude was prevalent in my native religious culture. There was encouragement and support for being unwavering in one’s faith stance. I received conflicting messages from members of my faith community urging me to “let nothing keep you from getting a good education” and “don’t let those professors destroy your faith.”
Slowly I began to realize that rigidity was being equated with faithfulness. I began discovering that fundamentalism was a mindset and there were adherents in nearly every faith tradition, in many denominations and subdivisions within those faith traditions, and more recently in political parties. In fundamentalism, belief trumps behavior at every turn. As I began seriously exploring what the ultimate results would be if some of what I believed were not true, I found I had to revisit, reexamine, and rethink the beliefs I was holding. I discovered other moral and spiritual codes that were as beneficial as my own and some seemed superior. Jewish leaders did not conclude that I had no standing with God if I did not understand God as they understood God. Mahatma Gandhi practiced non-violent civil disobedience better than any Christian ever had until perhaps Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi was a faithful Hindu. My mind began to change.
It did seem that those with the most rigid views were the unhappiest, often angriest, people. It was as if people were clinging to rigid views in an effort to maintain control of their lives. What was a common pattern of development for many individuals also was a common pattern for institutions. Orthodoxy is a religious institution’s insistence that all must experience God as it has. Creeds became a part of the church’s development but they hindered the church’s ability to evolve spiritually. The result was as Philip Gulley says, “In its rush to codify faith, the church provided answers long before we knew what questions to ask. When we dared to ask questions, we were directed to the creeds and commanded not to stray from their boundaries.” Belief trumped behavior.
Some results from belief trumping behavior are: honest questioning and seeking are discouraged, any conclusion that contradicts a congregation or denomination’s assumptions is branded as heretical, people are kept spiritually underdeveloped, and grace is neither experienced nor offered. This is contrary to what we see, for example, in Jesus’ approach with people—i.e. Zacchaeus and a woman accused of adultery—or his signature story of the Samaritan. A congregation or denomination can be unbelievably intolerant and take years to act graciously. At times the majority in the name of religion has furthered evil such as defending slavery, denying women equality, labeling homosexuals as abominations, defining AIDS as punishment from God, and promoting war as an expression of God’s will.
Crucial to my mind changing was the tremendous gift of a fabulous education I was afforded beginning in public school and continuing in a Baptist college and two Baptist seminaries where I was taught to think critically. Unfortunately, this is not still the case in Southern Baptist Seminaries and most Baptist colleges that were affiliated with the SBC have severed those ties.
When B. A. Sizemore provided flood narratives from traditions in addition to the Biblical narrative, in Old Testament survey class, I was at the corner of fear and freedom. I had to rethink my understanding of Hebrew Scripture.
When Frank Stagg said that the concept of the Trinity developed after the New Testament was written, I was at the corner of fear and freedom. I had to rethink the teaching about the Trinity and recognize that it was not a biblical concept.
When Wayne Oates wrote and talked about sick religion, I saw how people using biblical material literally were being destructive and evil. So I chose healthy faith over sick religion.
Healthy faith is growing, expanding, accepting, inclusive, embracing of ambiguity, refusing to say it has the final answer and certainly not the only answer. Healthy faith basks in the breezes of freedom. Sick religion is restrictive, exclusive, closed, contracting, scared to death of ambiguity, and certain that it is has the final and only answer but hasn’t a clue what the question is. Based on fear and nurtured in fear, sick religion becomes deadly when it acts out of fear. Sick religion withdraws from life and lives in fear.
The congregation I served in Temple Hills, MD had an excellent working relationship with the nearby synagogue, Shara Tikvah. Danita, our second child, recently shared a conversation she and I had during that time. Here are her observations. “I am not sure where we were when I asked the question but you and I had been talking about the beliefs of the members of Shara Tikva and ours, about how the Jews believed that Jesus was a good man/ leader but not necessarily the Messiah. There may have been a few other specific differences that we were discussing and I said, "How do we know we're right?" To which you simply replied, "We don't." (I can still hear the matter of fact tone in your voice). I am sure I repeated your response out loud in a question, "We don't?" but I don't remember how the conversation continued or ended. All I remember is what I thought and felt, "What? That's all you got? You are a minister, you have studied this stuff, and we don't know?! In that moment, I felt fear and freedom. Fear in not knowing definitively and of making a wrong choice followed by freedom that there was no wrong answer. I couldn't make a mistake, either path would be ok.” I’m so glad that at the intersection of fear and freedom Danita found my response to be liberating.
In addition to the gift of a fabulous education, I have also been afforded the wonderful opportunity to travel to various parts of the world. In Guyana, South America, several pandits, Hindu religious leaders, permitted us to use the open area under their houses to have Vacation Bible School. I was intrigued. Part of our motive was to convert Hindus to Christianity.
While traveling in the Soviet Union as part of a Baptist Peace and Friendship Tour, one Russian woman said, “Now that I see your faces, you are beautiful people.” Fear melted into freedom.
I have found Mark Twain’s observation to be accurate, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” I suspect I will experience the truth of this statement again in November when Peggy and I travel with others to participate in a Haiti Just Recovery project.
College introduced me to critical thinking, although I don’t recall it being identified in those terms. Seminary education continued to challenge me to think critically. I recall being challenged to think and it was frightening. However, when I permitted the fear to give way to freedom, critical thinking led me to rethink and reject the teaching of the virgin birth of Jesus, the divinity of Jesus, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and the many horrible interpretations given to the death of Jesus.
My conclusions are parallel to those of Rodney Romney. This is a paraphrase of Romney’s conclusions. “Jesus, was not only a devout Jew, but also he was a universalist, a mystic, and a pacifist.
“My stand is clear, and it is this. No one is special, because every one is. Every person is sacred, which means we are all equal. Every person is called by God to make this world a safe and peaceful place. We are each part of every soul that is on this planet, and if we deny love or acceptance to others, we deny it to ourselves. We should be free to seek God or not seek God in our own way and worship how and where we please, for the same God hears all of us, no matter from which mountain we call. Religious institutions -- whether they are called temples, mosques, synagogues or churches -- that deny the sacred right of any individual to be who he or she truly is, are faulty institutions directed by misguided leaders. They are acting out of fear rather than freedom.
There are great problems in this world, not the least of which are poverty, hunger, homelessness and the ever-recurring problem of war. We can always do more corporately to address these problems than we can ever do individually. But we can never work effectively on any problem, unless we do it from a sacred sense of our own individual being and our belief in the oneness and the sacredness of all forms of life, human and non-human alike.” (Rodney Romney-Retired Senior Minister, First Baptist Church Seattle, WA)
I have come to understand the Bible as a wonderful collection of myth and metaphor—many stories that convey and communicate truth whether or not they ever happened and attempts to portray love and grace that are so beyond description that only metaphor can be used to convey the breadth and depth of love and grace.
I hold strongly to two principles. 1) Love is stronger than hate. 2) Life is stronger than death. This leads me to reclaim two very important words, evangelism and salvation.
Evangelism means good news. Salvation means having enough room to get away from doing evil. Let’s reclaim both words. Standing on the side of love brings good news. Standing on the side of love results in working for justice. Standing on the side of love provides enough room to get away from doing evil. Standing on the side of love is good news that gives us enough room to get away from doing evil. When we are at the corner of fear and freedom, standing on the side of love enables us to choose freedom over fear.
In this sense I am a pilgrim-a traveler-literally one who has come from afar-who is on a journey to a holy place. Whenever I stand on the side of love I am in a holy place.
My view is that we are all called to the same vocation; our vocation, our calling is to stand on the side of love, to love the world for God’s sake. We will find different means and methods to do it. Some will be teachers, some business people, some doctors, some nurses, some lawyers, some ministers, some technicians, and some retirees. Some will be believers, some doubters, some agnostics, some atheists, some Protestants, some Catholics, some Jews, some Muslims, some Buddhists, some Hindus, and some recovering Christians. My, my, how my mind has changed!
I don’t know when I’ll stand at the corner of fear and freedom again, this afternoon, tomorrow, November when I’m in Haiti working on a service project. I don’t know when you’ll be at the corner of fear and freedom. I know you’ll be there sometime. I know I will as well. Here is my hope. May all that you do, all that we do, be done to fulfill our calling, our vocation--to stand on the side of love. When we do, fear gives way to freedom. My, my how my mind has changed.