When I was about to begin serving as a pastor for the first time over a dozen years ago, I decided to ask one of my seminary professors, Dr Jim Stewart, for advice on what to do when starting out in a congregation- something for which seminary doesn’t actually prepare you.
Dr. Stewart looked top heavy with his mop of curly white hair on top of his short, heavyset body. He wore thick brown glasses, which when removed revealed that Dr Stewart was a dead ringer for the actor Charles Durning who played Doc Hopper in the Muppet Movie.
After class one day, I walked up to Dr Stewart as he was stuffing papers into his leather satchel and I asked him for advice on beginning in my first congregation.
He answered so quickly I almost thought he was responding to someone else’s question:
“Don’t change ANYTHING for the first 6 months. Earn their trust. Don’t do or say anything provocative. Don’t ruffle feathers. Don’t upset anyone. Don’t rock the boat. Be as inoffensive and ordinary as possible.”
He slid more papers into his satchel as I processed what sounded to me like an insult in the form of advice. Dr Stewart looked up and smiled and said:
‘Don’t worry, that’s a comment about you. I give the same advice to every new pastor.’
I can’t speak for the other denominations whose clergy Dr Stewart has advised, but I can say that his words are frustrated by the fact that United Methodist bishops appoint their pastors to churches during the last week of June/first week of July.
So, in the United Methodist Church new clergy are making just their first or second impressions over Independence Day weekend, a time when most folks are not in church and others come to church with a diversity of expectations.
I packed Dr Stewart’s advice along with my books and my belongings and I took it with me to my new church.
On Day 1, my secretary first walked me through the church directory. Second, she gave me the skinny on church gossip, and third she informed me that, as the new pastor in town, I was scheduled to preach the sermon at the annual, ecumenical Independence Day Service.
‘But Independence Day isn’t even a Christian holiday.’
My secretary just stared at me, saying nothing, as though she were a soothsayer foreseeing the self-destructive implosion that would be this new pastor’s Independence Day sermon.
Like all things 4th of July, the ecumenical service was held outdoors, in a city park. I arrived early. Lee Greenwood’s ‘Proud to be an American’ was booming through the speakers as I parked my car.
When I got to the pavilion area, I spotted a large, wooden cross in the center of the stage- the kind of cross you’d see on the side of the highway.
Only this cross had a large, car dealership-sized American flag draped over it.
And I swear, in that instant, Dr Stewart appeared to me like Yoda to Luke Skywalker. And starting at old glory covering up the old rugged cross, I heard Dr Stewart’s advice ring in the air:
‘Don’t ruffle feathers. Be as inoffensive and ordinary as possible.’
I walked up to a guy who looked like the master of ceremonies- a Pentecostal preacher, it turned out. I introduced myself and then I said:
‘Say, maybe we should take the flag off the cross before people show up for the service and get upset.’
The Pentecostal preacher just stared at me- the same soothsaying way my secretary had- and then he said: ‘Why would anyone get upset? This is the Independence Day Service after all.’
And I was about to respond at least as colorfully as the stars and stripes, but then I saw Dr Stewart appear in an angelic haze, like Obi Wan to young Luke, and I heard Dr Stewart say:
‘Don’t upset anyone.’
So I said nothing.
Before we realized what was happening, the Brethren pastor had slid from words of welcome into a ‘Fatherwejust’ prayer. His prayer was a confession, a lament, of all the ways America has absconded from the Christian values of its founding.
His lament was exhaustive and exhausting, and all the while I gripped my bible and sighed, trying to conjure the image of Dr Stewart.
After the fatherwejust prayer, we sang ‘America’ and the ‘Battle Hymn,’ which in hindsight were the high points of the service. And after the ‘glory, glory, hallelujahs’ the local Episcopal priest got up and offered another prayer- this one thanking God that we live in a nation where we’re free to pursue what sounded to me like positions from the Democratic Party platform.
Again, I sighed and death-gripped my bible, waiting for some mention of Jesus to make its way into the prayer. But it never did.
Next, the Master of Ceremonies, the Pentecostal preacher, stood in front of the flag-draped-cross and read the Declaration of Independence, and when he finished, he said:
‘I’d like to invite the new Methodist pastor, Rev James MacChelly, to come up and preach for us.’
I’d come that day armed with a few pages of a sermon on serving your neighbor, a harmless, vanilla homily I could’ve easily delivered at a Kiwanis meeting as at a worship service.
But walking up to the flag-draped-cross, I decided a different message was needed. I decided to change gears and improvise. I decided I should trust the Holy Spirit not to let me crash and burn.
And I’ve preached from a manuscript ever since.
First, I read not from the Golden Rule as I’d planned, but from the Apostle Paul- not today’s text but one just like it, where Paul writes:
God raised Jesus Christ from the dead and exalted him to sit at the right hand of the Father and given him the name that is above every name; so that, at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
When I finished reading the scripture, a few people said ‘Amen,’ which I erroneously took as a promising sign.
And then I began:
I know a lot of you are expecting me to speak about America or politics or patriotism. And there’s nothing wrong with those things. But I’m a preacher. The bishop laid hands on me to proclaim not America but the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
I looked out in the crowd and saw Dr Stewart sitting on a lawn chair near the 3rd row. He was shaking his head and mouthing the words: ‘Don’t rock the boat.’
But I ignored him.
The bishop laid hands on me to preach the Gospel, and the Gospel is that Jesus Christ is Lord.
The Gospel isn’t Jesus is going to be Lord one day; the Gospel isn’t Jesus will be Lord after he returns to Earth to rapture us off to the great bye and bye.
The Gospel is that Jesus Christ, who sits at the right hand of the Father, is Lord. The Gospel isn’t that Jesus rules in heaven; the Gospel is that Jesus Christ rules the nations of the world fromheaven.
You see, I said, to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord is to profess that something fundamental as changed in the world, something to which we’re invited to believe and around which we’re called to reorient our lives and for which, if necessary, we’re expected to sacrifice our lives.
To confess that Jesus Christ is Lord is to profess that at Easter God permanently replaced the way of Caesar, the way of the world with the way of Jesus, a way that blesses the poor, that comforts those who mourn, a way where righteousness is to hunger and thirst after justice and where the Kingdom belongs to those who wage…peace.
Dr Stewart sat in his lawn chair, giving me a sad, ‘it’s-not-too-late-to-turn-back’ look. But it was too late.
I was commissioned to preach the Gospel, I said.
And the Gospel- the Gospel of Paul and Peter and James and John and Luke and Mark and Matthew- is that Jesus Christ is Lord.
And in their day the Gospel announcement had a counter-cultural correlative: Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not.
I could tell from the crinkled brows in the crowd that they could yet tell if or how I was subverting their expectations.
So I decided to make it plain.
And in our day, the Gospel has a counter-cultural correlative to it too.
Jesus is Lord, and ‘We the people’ are not.
Jesus is Lord, and the Democratic Party is not.
Jesus is Lord, and the Republican Party is not.
Jesus is Lord, and America- though it’s deserving of our pride and our commitment and our gratitude- is not Lord.
As wonderful as this nation is, we are not God’s Beloved because Jesus Christ is God’s Beloved and his Body is spread through the world.
The crinkled brows in the crowd had turned to crossed arms and angry faces, and a few people got up and left.
Dr Stewart was now sitting in his lawnchair mouthing the words ‘I told you so.’
I’d lost them, all of them, and I knew if any of them in the crowd were members of my new congregation they wouldn’t be for much longer. I knew I had to steer this wreck of a sermon off the road as quickly as possible.
So I said:
Independence Day Weekend is as good a time as any to remember that as baptized Christians we carry 2 passports. We have dual citizenship: 2nd to the US of A and 1st to the Kingdom of God.
Independence Day is as good a time as any to remember that as baptized Christians, our politics are not determined by Caesar or Rome or Washington. As baptized Christians, our politics- our way being in the world- are conformed to the one whom God raised from the dead.
Independence Day is as good a time as any to remember that you can be a proud American. You can be thankful for your country. You can serve your country.
But if you’re baptized, then you’ve pledged your allegiance to Jesus Christ, and your ultimate citizenship is to his Kingdom, and even as we celebrate the 13 Colonies’ independence we shouldn’t forget that our primary calling as baptized Christians is to colonize the Earth with the way of Jesus Christ.
That’s what we pray when we pray ‘Thy Kingdom come…’
I thought that sounded like a good place to end the sermon so I said: ‘In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’
And the gathered crowd responded with ‘harummphhhhhhhhhhhhh…….’
I looked up in the crowd and saw that Dr Stewart was no longer there, which wasn’t all that surprising because neither were several dozen other people.
Though its harder to decipher, in Romans 6 Paul makes the same point as that passage I read a dozen years ago.
Paul builds on his argument by showing you how Jesus is the 2nd Moses, how Christ has delivered us from the domain of Sin and Death so that we might walk in newness of life.
And that word ‘walk’ is key. It’s ‘halakah.’
It comes from the Exodus, when God- through Moses- rescued his people from slavery in Egypt and delivered them to a new life by parting the Red Sea so that they could walk across it on dry land.
Paul’s point is that through our baptism we leave the old world and we are liberated into God’s new creation; so that, as baptized Christians, we live eternity in the here and now.
That’s what Jesus means by ‘eternal life.’
For Paul, the resurrection inaugurates a new reality in the world; so that, baptism is for us what the Red Sea was for the Israelites: a doorway into a new Kingdom, a new and different and distinct People in the world.
That’s what Paul means when he says elsewhere that all the old national and political and ethnic distinctions do not matter because the baptized are now united in Christ.
For Paul, baptism isn’t so much the outward symbol of a believer’s faith. Baptism unites into Christ so that what is true of him is now true of us, and what’s true of him is that he has been raised from the dead and exalted to the right hand of God where he is the Lord over the nations of the Earth.
You see, for Paul, baptism is our naturalization ceremony in which allegiance and loyalty is transferred from the kingdoms and nations of this world to the Kingdom of God.
After the service ended, the pastors formed a receiving line to shake hands with folks as they left. I was at the far end of the line. Not wanting any guilt by association, the other pastors had left ample buffer space between them and me.
Most people just walked by me and glared at me like I was a wife beater.
A few people joked: ‘I wouldn’t unpack my new office just yet if I were you Rev. MacChellee.’
Finally a man in his 50’s or 60’s came up to me.
He had a high and tight haircut and was wearing a Hawaiian print shirt and a Marine Corps tattoo on his forearm.
And he said: ‘Preacher, I just want to thank you.’
‘Thank me? For what exactly?’
‘I never have understood how Paul got himself executed, but listening to you preach I finally understand why people would want to kill him.’
‘Look, I said, ‘I’m sorry. I admit it. It wasn’t a good sermon for a new guy to preach.’
‘No, I’m dead serious. I always thought being a Christian was about believing in Jesus so we can go to heaven when we die and in the meantime we’re supposed to be kind to our neighbors.
‘But that doesn’t make Christians much different than the Rotary Club or any other American.’
‘As stupid as your sermon was, it helped me see that being a Christian is a whole lot more complicated than I thought, but maybe a lot more interesting too.’
12 years ago, Independence Day Weekend- that was the wrong sermon to preach. I know that now.
It ruffled feathers. It sounded offensive. It upset nearly everyone.
They didn’t know me. They didn’t know if I was serving up flip opinions or speaking out of a sincere faith. I hadn’t earned their trust.
It was the wrong sermon to preach.
But I’ve been here 8 years.
You do know me. You’ve learned how to listen to me. You know that even when I sound flip my faith is sincere.
I’ve been here 8 years and I think I’ve earned at least a little of your trust.
So trust me when I tell you that I’m grateful to live in a nation where I am free to irritate you every other Sunday.
But hear me when I tell you:
as baptized Christians, we are a People who carry 2 passports, who have dual citizenship but only 1 allegiance.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take pride in our American identity; I am saying that our primary identity should come from the Lordship of Christ.
(And in too many cases, it doesn’t.)
I’m not saying our independence isn’t something to celebrate; I am saying that our dependence on God, which we’ve been liberated into by the resurrection of Christ, should be a greater cause for celebration.
(And very often, it isn’t.)
I’m not saying that the flag shouldn’t be a powerful symbol for us; I am saying that the Cross and the Bread and the Cup and the Water should be more powerful symbols.
(And, let’s be honest, most of the time they’re not.)
Because as baptized Christians, we belong to a different Kingdom, a Kingdom that can’t be advanced by force or political parties or legislation or constitutional amendments- we belong to a Kingdom that can only be advanced the way it was advanced by Jesus Christ.
Through witness. And faithfulness. And service. And sacrificial love.