Mid-way through my time in seminary a group of us were regularly gathering for intentional faith formation. Our group was made of 20-something Christians both in and outside of Duke Divinity School. As we met on a weekly basis we learned more about one another’s faith, and what had led each of us to Durham, and our present relationship with God. On one particular evening we were discussing the differences between adhering to the law, or the righteousness of faith, when one of my roommates told the story of why it had taken him so long to return to the church.
My roommate had grown up in the deep south in a town where attending the high school football games on Friday nights were second only to attending the Baptist churches on Sunday morning. He had grown up in the church and eventually chose to be baptized out of fear, rather than an intimate relationship with the triune God. He left church every Sunday unsure of what he had done wrong in the eyes of God, but certainly felt that he had committed some horrible atrocity. At some point during high school, his youth group went on a retreat to a local college campus where a conservative evangelical Christian organization was holding a “Faith Weekend.” The hundreds of young Christians gathered in the large auditorium to hear Christian music, sermons, broke into small groups, and generally worshipped with one another until one evening, during the height of a sermon about accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, the fire alarm went off. Immediately, all of the counselors and chaperones quickly filed all of the students out of the arena through the exit doors to the parking lot. In the sea of chaos my roommate remembered being incredibly frightened and even began praying that everyone would safely make it out of the building. When his eyes finally adjusted to the dimly lit parking lot, he was surprised to discover lifeboats scattered throughout the area with little ladders leading up into the boats. “Quick!” Someone shouted, “Everyone into the boats as quickly as you can, run!” As my roommate was swinging his legs over the starboard side of a life boat the fire alarm stopped ringing and a man began speaking through a megaphone: “Take a good look around you, there are not enough spaces in all of the life boats for everyone… Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”
Those are the kind of scare tactics that move people away from the church.
In the fourth chapter of his epistle to the church in Rome, Paul addresses the differences between adherence to the Law and the righteousness of faith. Paul’s use of the Old Testament figure of Abraham is of fundamental importance for the message he intended to share with the Roman church: Though the reasons behind his attention to the relationship between Jews and Christians in the first century are helpful for understanding Paul’s frame-of-reference, the point still remains pertinent today. God’s promises to God’s people are revealed and realized through faith.
Paul begs us to remember Abraham, the father of Israel, because God promised Abraham that he would inherit the world and this inheritance was not realized through adherence to the law, but through the righteousness of faith. The promise of God was coming to Abraham regardless of his ability to maintain the ordinances declared by God. God would never love Abraham any more or any less than he did the day the covenant was made. For this same reason, God’s promises are realized through faith not only to the adherents of the law, those among us to do everything right, but also to those who share in the same faith as Abraham.
Abraham, formerly known as Abram, called out of his homeland to travel to the land that God would send him, promised to be made a great nation, entered into the holy covenant with God marked by circumcision, the husband of Sarah and the father of Isaac. The man who carried his young son to the land of Moriah where he prepared to sacrifice him only to be stopped by an angel of the Lord, and thus Abraham continued to demonstrate his faith. Abraham the father of the great nation that eventually made its way out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Abraham. God’s promises are realized to those who share in the same faith as Abraham. We, the Christian Church, share in this same faith and have been grafted into a relationship with the triune God.
On March 12th 1988, when I was 19 days old, my family gathered right over there by the baptismal font and participated as Ken Wetzel baptized me in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. In addition to the water spilled onto my forehead, and the presence of the Holy Spirit there was one fundamentally important aspect of that sacrament that this church participated in: Reverend Wetzel looked out to you, this congregation more than 25 years ago, and asked this question: Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life and include this person now before you in your care? The response of this congregation that morning is why I am standing before you today:
With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround him with a community of love and forgiveness, that he may grow in his service to others. We will pray for him, they he may be a true disciple who walks in the way that leads to life.
The commitment this church made to God that morning regarding my life as a Christian was one that formed and shaped me into the man I am today. Among the many things that this church committed to, it was the first part of the response, “With God’s Help,” that has made the biggest impact on my life. From my infancy, Aldersgate UMC has been the type of community that recognizes how what we do can only be accomplished with God’s help; that has made all the difference. Instead of being raised in a church where I was taught to fear God, like my roommate from seminary was, I was constantly reminded of how to remain committed to the gospel through hope, faith, and love.
The true beginning of my call to ministry did not begin with my confirmation around that altar, or even when I was a Boy Scout with troop 996, but when I was 13 years old I noticed a call for help in one of our Sunday bulletins for someone to run the soundboard. (It gave me goose bumps to see a similar message in the bulletins from last week). I spent every Sunday for a month standing in the back of the church with men like Bud Walker and Paul Corrum who taught me how to keep the correct sound levels. And until I graduated from High School I ran the sound system for many of our Sunday services, weddings, and funerals. Though I was considerably younger than anyone in the back of the church, men such as Paul Tuoig, Bob Foley, Les Norton, and Sam Schrage made it a point to come stand with me every week and treated me with respect, like an adult, and they treated me like a fellow Christian. There have been countless individuals from this church who have made it their responsibility to demonstrate the goodness of God through their actions on mission trips, meetings, and worship. With God’s Help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ.
After enrolling in college I was invited to act as a ministerial intern for our church every summer until I entered seminary. I was encouraged to lead mission trips all over the world, visit congregants who could no longer attend church, create bible study curricula, and preach regularly. I still can’t believe that Jason and Dennis were foolish enough to let me preach for the first time when I was 19 years old. A plethora of people have expressed their gratitude for my sermons, and leadership on mission trips, but even more important have been those of you who disliked what I said and did, and loved me enough to tell me why. Without you I could not have grown. With God’s Help we will surround him with a community of love and forgiveness that he may grow in his service to others.
I have been living in Durham, North Carolina for the last three years working on my Masters of Divinity and I have been continually invited to preach from this pulpit. Even if I was invited on specific weekends when Jason and Dennis wanted to go on vacation I nevertheless appreciated the invitation and felt privileged to proclaim the good news within my home church. I have now been approved by the Virginia Conference to serve as a Provisional Elder and have been appointed to St. John’s UMC in Staunton VA. I am incredibly humbled by the fact that, to my knowledge, I am the first person to have grown up through Aldersgate and then pursue a call to ordained ministry. With God’s help, we will pray for him, that he may be a true disciple, who walks in the way that leads to life.
I was incredibly blessed to have grown up through Aldersgate. It was this Christian community that showed me the importance of faith predicated on God’s help. Faith was never taught to me in such a way that I would respond to God out of fear but instead by love. This church nurtured me in such a way that the question: Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior felt uncomfortable and dissonant. It puts too much power and control on our side of the equation. Accepting Jesus sounds a lot more like following the Law than it does embodying the righteousness of faith. If the church is to be thought of from this legal point of view, from simply accepting Jesus, if it is regarded as a condition capable of human attainment, then the church will remain deprived of its dynamic power and continually insecure. This is why I fear that so many young people are no longer coming to church; perhaps they feel completely isolated regarding their relationship with God after accepting Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. Maybe they believe they carry the burden of their relationship with God completely on their own. Convincing someone to accept Jesus is an important element of Christian discipleship but the difference between accepting Jesus, and confessing Jesus Christ as Lord are two different things. Aldersgate never let my relationship with God stop at acceptance, but pushed me to learn so much more about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. It is my prayer that the new faith community that this church is preparing to help establish will continue to make disciples of Jesus Christ teaching that faith is faith only when it is an advance, understandable only because if come from God alone. Faith is creative, faith is living, faith is fulfilling, only when we find ourselves wrapped up in God’s love. Faith is real only when it is found With God’s help.
As I look forward to my future in the ministry, I am thankful for Aldersgate, the opportunities it has provided me, and the people that have demonstrated God’s love to me. I would not be standing here if it were not for that baptismal commitment you made to God twenty-five years ago. I never could have discovered faith in God on my own; it was this church that shared the faith of Abraham with me regarding God’s promises to God’s people. I learned the language and grammar of Christianity through sermons, classes, and even vacation bible school. I participated in God’s kingdom on earth by visiting those who were in need, through proclaiming the good news, and even dressing up for living Bethlehem. Paul’s words to the church in Rome have now come alive for me, because this church committed to raising me in the faith, to share the faith of Abraham with everyone, and proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom. This church taught me that the truly creative act by which we all become the children of Abraham does not lie in the possible possibility of the law, but in the impossible possibility of faith.
It’s when I open up to the fourth chapter of Romans that I am reminded of what this church does every day, every week, every month, every year; you open up the strange new world of the Bible. We get to stand on the rocky ground and feel the warmth of the burning bush on our cheek with Moses. We get to feel the water flow between our toes as we wait on the banks of the Jabbok witnessing Jacob wrestle with the angel from God. We get to gather together in the marketplaces and the shores of the lakes watching Jesus perform miracles, feed the multitudes, and teach about the kingdom of God. This church invites us into the strange new world of the Bible.
Just as you made a commitment to God regarding my faith 25 years ago, you also have committed to nurture those sitting to your right and left in faith. To show them Christ’s love in everything you do, to embody the kingdom of God so that we all might share in the faith of Abraham.
With God’s Help we are called to proclaim the good news, to gather together regularly in order to share the story of God’s interaction with God’s people, to read scripture and learn our own story. With God’s help we are commissioned to live according to the example of Christ, to lift up our own crosses and bear them in the world, to serve those in need, to love the unlovable and transform the world by first transforming ourselves.
I thank all of you from the bottom of my heart. To God Be the Glory.