From Despair to Hope
Ezra 3: 10-13
Ezra 3: 10-13
One of the most remarkable worship sites that I have ever visited was Coventry Cathedral in England. I visited this cathedral on a Sunday morning in 2006. On the night of November 14, 1940 the German Luftwaffe completely destroyed the city of Coventry with a ferocious bombing campaign that included a number of incendiary bombs. The old cathedral, which had stood for almost a millennium was completely and utterly destroyed. The very next day the people of Coventry vowed to rebuild their cathedral. However, they determined that the rebuilding would not be an act of anger or defiance. They would rebuild in the spirit of reconciliation and peace as a sign of their faith, hope, and trust in the future.
Shortly after the destruction, the cathedral’s stone mason discovered two burned out medieval timbers from the roof of the old cathedral which had fallen to the floor in the shape of a cross. He set them up on a make-shift altar in the ruins and later the words “Father Forgive” were inscribed behind the altar in the sanctuary wall. Also, three nails were found in the rubble and were fused together to form a “cross of nails” which has become the symbol of the cathedral’s Ministry of Peace and Reconciliation to the world.
The new cathedral was started in 1956 and completed six years later. Today it stands as a beautiful testimony that in the midst of despair can come hope. From the ashes of the old Coventry Cathedral has arisen the new Coventry Cathedral with an international ministry promoting peace and reconciliation.
You have heard me mention before about how devastating the 6th century B.C. was for the Jewish people. Indeed, it is impossible to understand ancient Israel without being aware of this monumental event in their history. In 587 B.C. the Babylonians completely destroyed Jerusalem and more importantly, their temple. For 400 years it had stood as the heart of their worship community. It was dreamed of by David, dedicated by Solomon, drawn attention to by Jeremiah, dedicated again by Josiah, and destroyed by the Babylonians. Now it was gone.
But it got worse. The people themselves were taken into captivity into Babylon. Talk about despair! They lost their land. They lost their temple. They lost their way of life. And they lost their faith. They were devastated!
But a wonderful thing happened about 50 years later. In 538 B.C. the Babylonians were defeated by the Persians and the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem. Ezra led one of these waves of returning Jews. But when they arrived back home things had changed drastically over the last half-century. The city of Jerusalem lay in ruins. The walls were destroyed. The temple itself was destroyed. All the important objects of the temple were gone. Everything of value had been looted. The Ark of the Covenant was gone. The temple lay in ruins, a picture of utter devastation.
Led by Ezra, the Jews began the slow task of rebuilding their temple. First they rebuilt the altar (vss. 1-6). Then they laid the foundation for the temple (vss. 7-9). Finally, we come to our text for the day. After the foundation was completed, the people began to celebrate. It was something of a pause, a respite. They celebrated the fact that they were beginning to move from despair to hope. It was dawning on them that their exile was coming to an end.
As most of you know last week I attended the meeting of the New Baptist Covenant in Atlanta. A number of you have asked me my impression about the meeting. I have promised that I would share my thoughts with you. But first, I need to give you some information about my own pilgrimage in the Baptist world.
Unlike many of you, I did not grow up Baptist. I grew up in the Methodist tradition. While many of you were going to Training Union on Sunday evenings, I was going to MYF. Most of you grew up hearing about Ridgecrest. For me it was Lake Junaluska. I am not Baptist by birth. I am Baptist by conviction. I was introduced to the Baptist tradition by two people, my best friend in high school and my girlfriend (whose father was a Baptist preacher). I was 18 years old when I was baptized in October, 1977 by Dr. Billy Cline at Merrimon Ave. Baptist Church.
By the time I was baptized I had decided that I was going to prepare for ministry in the Baptist tradition. I was a freshman at Mars Hill College where I completed my Religion degree then continued on at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary where I completed my Master of Divinity degree.
But, in the midst of my preparation for ministry I became acutely aware of “the Controversy” when it broke out in 1979. Some of you were at one of the six SBC seminaries during this time. The Controversy for many of us became sort of like a sport. Conventions came and went and we attended if we could and pulled for “our side.” I went to seminary with no idea what a Fundamentalist was but graduated knowing exactly what a Fundamentalist was. I knew that Fundamentalism was not the lens through which I viewed the Christian life.
And so I eventually became a pastor in Texas and did what many others like me did. I began to devote time to organizing and working for the Moderate network in Texas Baptist life. If I wasn’t directly involved in vote counting or trying to woo an “uncommitted” pastor to our side, I was talking about “the Controversy” with friends over lunch and speculating about what might happen at the next convention meeting.
All of this was a very poisonous environment. Looking back on it, it was almost addictive. Gossip about various leaders would spread like wildfire. Conventions were like football games. We cheered and booed, jeered and wooed. I had become addicted to the Controversy.
The year 1990 marked a turning point. That was the year that most Moderates realized that the SBC was gone and would never again be the same. But still the fight continued in state conventions and associations. I continued to discuss and debate. Now, after 20 years of participating in the Baptist Battle, I am weary. Many of my generation of ministers and theological professors are tired of the Controversy. I don’t disparage the Conservatives in Baptist life. I just want to do the ministry and work that God has called me to do and not be hindered by that mindset.
But although I don’t go to SBC meetings anymore and I am completely affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the “Controversy” has still remained with me. The outcome of 30 years of in-fighting between Baptists in the South has been the demise of the Baptist name. Now, the name “Baptist” is a caricature. So many times I introduce myself as “Baptist” but have to qualify it and say, “But I’m a good kind of Baptist.” Or, “I’m not that kind of Baptist.”
The Baptist name has lost much of its luster and no longer holds a positive witness in many places today. In the early 21st century, to the non-Baptist world that doesn’t understand the different kinds of Baptists, our name is associated with things such as total identification with the extreme right wing of one political party, boycotting Disneyworld, telling women they need to “graciously submit” to their husbands, telling women that God will allow the church to baptize you but not allow the church to ordain you, or telling certain people that they are not welcomed in our churches because of a specific sin or lifestyle they may lead.
Another sobering fact is that the generation behind me is less interested in denominational affiliation with the Baptists than previous generations. That is going to have a tremendous impact on the well-being of Baptist churches in the future. It is also going to have an impact on the ability of Baptist churches in the future to attract ministers. The generation behind mine simply is not as interested in our denomination as their parents and grandparents. At Campbell, the class that I teach that always has the smallest enrollment is my Baptist History class. But, I get a good number of students who sign up for my Religion in America, Early Christianity, or Reformation classes.
Because the Baptist name has suffered greatly in the last 30 years, there is a sense in which I and many like me have felt like we were in exile in Babylon. I have felt feelings of despair. I have been sorrowful that the good things that Baptists have historically championed such as devotion to freedom of conscience, religious freedom, freedom of the local church, freedom to read and interpret scripture for ourselves, all good aspects of the Baptist tradition, have been overshadowed by our fighting, hypocrisy, and pharisaic spirit. God forgive us!
That is why I was very excited about the New Baptist Covenant and why I returned home last Saturday from Atlanta with a hope that I have not had for the Baptist witness in the world in a long time. In the short time I have, let me try and describe to you what this meeting was about and why I am so excited.
I. First, let me tell you what the meeting was not.
A. This Meeting Was Not a Political Rally Designed to Support the Democratic Party in this Election Year.
It is true that the meeting was organized by former President Jimmy Carter and was supported by former President Bill Clinton. But in the plenary sessions there were no campaign speeches. In fact, the only person who mentioned a candidate for president was Bill Clinton who, in his speech, spoke of his admiration and friendship with Governor Mike Huckabee, a fellow Baptist. Admittedly, former Presidents Carter and Clinton and former Vice-President Al Gore are Democrats. However, Senators Charles Grassley and Lindsey Graham, both Republicans, were on the program (although Senator Graham had to cancel). And, Governor Mike Huckabee was originally scheduled to be on the program but withdrew because he is a presidential candidate. This was not a political rally. I think if it had become that, many of us (perhaps thousands) would have left early.
I saw a letter to the editor in the Raleigh News and Observer yesterday that was criticizing the meeting as being political. The writer said:
It is most unusual that liberal and moderate Baptists would join with former U.S. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore to discuss issues of national interest. Although the leaders of the group claimed that they had no political agenda, the themes of the meeting—“poverty, diversity, peace, immigration and prisoners”—are the same prominent topics used by all the high profile candidates in today’s national political arena.
To this I would simply respond by saying (1) There were plenty of Baptists at this meeting who would not necessarily fall into the category of “moderate and liberal Baptists,” and (2) I think Jesus spoke a lot about “poverty, diversity, peace, immigration, and prisoners” long before any political candidates for president talked about them. I wondered if the writer had ever read Matthew 25?
B. This Meeting Was Not Designed to Include Only Moderate and Liberal Baptists.
On the contrary, Baptists from all over North America were invited to participate in this meeting. A total of 30 different Baptists groups responded. One of the major Baptist groups in North America, indeed the largest, refused to participate. And representatives from that group as well as their publicity arm have been most critical of the New Baptist Convenant. But, their exclusion was not the doing of the organizers of the New Baptist Covenant. They were invited and asked to be involved. They chose instead to stay away.
To bring us back to the text in Ezra this morning, you recall that when the Jews, led by Ezra, laid the foundation of the temple, they celebrated. They rejoiced. They worshipped and praised God. And, yet, if you read further in the chapter, you will discover that a group eventually began to work against the rebuilding of the temple. Those that speak negatively about the New Baptist Covenant, whatever it was and whatever it will be, remind me of the naysayers in Ezra 3:12.
C. The New Baptist Covenant Was Not the Beginning of a New
Again, some have claimed that organizing a new Baptist denomination is the real motive behind the organizers. I heard nothing about this at all. In fact, there were questions from the podium and in the hallways about where does this movement go from here. No one, and I mean no one has any desire to create a new denomination. This meeting represented no attempt to build a new Baptist body. Buddy Shurden said it this way, “The New Baptist Covenant is not an effort to form something together, it is an effort to say something together about what we ought to be doing together.”
II. Finally, I Will Tell You What I Believe this Meeting Accomplished.
A. This Was, Perhaps the Most Diverse Gathering of Such a Large Number of Baptists, in the Four Centuries of Our History
I can’t stress too much how diverse this gathering was. There was theological diversity. They was racial diversity. There was cultural diversity. There were close to 20,000 people registered for this meeting from 30 racially, geographically and theologically diverse Baptist groups in North America. These 30 Baptist denominations (Southern Baptists, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Baptists, American Baptists, National Baptists, Progressive National Baptists, Canadian Baptists, Hispanic Baptists, Seventh-Day Baptists, Japanese Baptists, Laotian Baptists, just to name a few) represented 20 million Baptists in North America.
Forty-Five years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Monument and declared in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, that “one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.” There is no doubt in my mind that on the red hills of Georgia from January 30-Feburary 1, 2008, King’s dream came to fruition. It was truly one of the most exciting meetings I have ever been to because of the incredible diversity.
B. This Was a Meeting that Called Baptists Back to Our Task of Missions.
For too long, we have gone to Baptist meetings and politicked. This meeting was about being like Jesus in the world. We heard a lot about Luke 4. In that chapter, Jesus declared to his hometown folks in Nazareth what he believed to be his mission:
The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Baptists are a people who believe that we should be like Jesus in the world. I wish I had time to recount for you all the speakers we heard from: Marian Wright Edelman who opened our hearts to the plight of poor children here in our own nation. Naw Blooming Night Zan, a registered nurse and Baptist missionary in Burma who works with the Karen people in refugee camps on the Thai border. Tony Campolo, the closest thing America has to an Old Testament prophet, who challenged our hearts about the need for social justice in our nation and world just to name a few.
All of the speakers spoke to us and encouraged us to have a prophetic Baptist witness to the world to call for promoting peace with justice, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, welcoming the strangers, promoting religious liberty, and respecting diversity. Buddy Shurden said it this way: “the purpose of the New Baptist Covenant is to hand out towels to every Baptist in North America and ask them to become a servant to the least and the last and the lost.”
In conclusion, I’ll just say that I left Atlanta excited about the future for Baptists in the 21st century. Our tradition as Baptists is 400 years old next year. Baptists are perhaps the most diverse denominational group there is. But, I left Atlanta convinced that God has much in store for Baptists during this next century. There is an old Baptist hymn that I thought of this week in relation to the New Baptist Covenant. It goes like this:
We’ve a story to tell to the nations,That shall turn their hearts to the right,A story of truth and mercy,A story of peace and light,A story of peace and light.
For the darkness shall turn to dawning
And the dawning to noonday bright
And Christ’s great kingdom shall come on earth
The Kingdom of love and light.
For the darkness shall turn to dawning
And the dawning to noonday bright
And Christ’s great kingdom shall come on earth
The Kingdom of love and light.