God is always ready to give the gift of freedom. The one thing you can be sure that God is always about is freedom, freeing His people from the things which hold them back. In every time and place, our God is working to give the gift of freedom.
When He does that, we call it a revolution. We see it as a new thing. When God’s work reaches one of those climactic moments in history, and freedom breaks loose, we call it a revolution. And it is. It is a new thing. But it is also something which grows out of all that God has been doing all along. God’s new thing grows out of God’s old thing. Like these lovely flowers, which look so fresh and new, and they are; but they have grown out of seeds that germinated a long time ago.
Now there are three things to do when you are in a revolutionary time. The first thing is to value what has been done in the past.
The second is to remember that whatever changes come about are not going to be complete.
And the third is to step forward in faith into the freedom of the future. For remember, God is always at work to give the gift of freedom. In a revolutionary moment we are to live valuing the past, seeing the present as incomplete but as hopeful, and embracing the future. When change comes, something in it will be the gift of God, freedom.
This weekend, as you well know, we celebrate Independence Day. We are remembering the American Revolution and its promise of freedom. The American Revolution illustrates what I am trying to say about great times of change. It broke new ground; those sturdy colonists, without much money and with an army fitted out with little more than patriotism, managed to overthrow monarchy, advance democracy, and set up a new form of government. A huge accomplishment.
Of course, you and I quarrel with some of the things they did. Like the fact that, a few years later, in their infinite wisdom, they carved their capital city out of the swampiest, most humid, mosquito-infested place on the North American continent and called it the District of Columbia! Oh well!
They were revolutionaries. But the ideas they believed in were not brand new. The ideas of freedom and justice, democracy and human rights, were not made up in Philadelphia in July of 1776. Those ideas originated in the prophets of Israel, eight centuries before Christ; those concepts were honed in the academies of classical Greece. They were refined in the English common law, written down in Magna Carta; they were preached in the pulpits of Protestant Christianity long before Adams and Franklin and Jefferson. The American Revolution had deep roots; and it honored those roots by doing something new.
Now I spoke of the Revolution and its promise of freedom. I used the phrase, "promise of freedom", because you and I know very well that the task of winning freedom was not completed in the 18th century. You and I know that because many of our ancestors were not represented at Independence Hall. I spoke of the ideas which they used to frame the Declaration of Independence, and I spoke of the Old Testament and of Greece and of England. Pretty European, right it? They knew nothing of being Afrocentric! And only a few of them perceived that slavery was a corrosive cancer on the American body Jefferson did say of that peculiar institution, "I tremble when I think that God is just," but the best that most could do was to agree, with total illogic, to count Africans as three-fifths of a person. Many in this room were not well represented in the American Revolution.
And, for that matter, you know that we always seem to speak about the Founding Fathers. What ever happened to the Founding Mothers? There’s a great deal that was not accomplished by the events of the fourth of July, 1776.
But I have said that God is always working to give the gift of freedom. And that when He does so, we call it revolution. The task of that moment is to value what has been done in the past, to recognize that the work of freedom is not yet complete, and to step forward in faith, believing that the God who is always doing a new thing, a freedom thing, will give us the future.
And so I’m saying that in the very fabric of an imperfect Declaration of Independence, in the sometimes crazy compromises of the Constitution, the principles of liberty and justice for all were inscribed deep in the heart of this nation. Every time we have come up on a revolutionary moment the emancipation movement, the civil rights movement … all were rooted in these ideals. God has called this nation to step out in faith to a future of freedom.
The very same thing can be said of the church. The very same truths apply to the Christian church.
When our God came in Jesus Christ, He was doing a new thing, a revolutionary thing. But that revolutionary thing drew on the past, as recorded in the Old Testament; that revolutionary moment grew out of God’s redemptive activity for the people of Israel. The promises of the prophets, the insights of the law, the whole history of a chosen people, pointed toward and prepared for that one revolutionary moment, when, in the fullness of time, the word would be made flesh and dwell among us, full of grace and truth, bringing freedom. Jesus Christ was a new moment, yes, but He was rooted in God’s long love affair with humanity.
And so it is also true that when Jesus Christ came and founded His church, that church was not all that it should have been. Those early Christians understood only part of their witness to Christ; only a few of them saw that God’s desire was to embrace in Christ all peoples and all nations. They did not all grasp that what had been in the heart of God from the beginning of time was spiritual freedom for all people.
But there was among them a revolutionary spirit named Paul. Paul the apostle saw things that others did not see and said what few knew how to say. Paul embraced freedom and the future; he said, "The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death ... to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace ... you are not in the flesh, you are in the spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you."
To put it succinctly, Paul led the early Christians to value what God had done in the past, to see that what God was doing in their present was only a beginning, and then to step forward in faith, believing that God would give even greater good news, even greater freedom in their future.
If all of this is true of the American nation; if this applies to the Christian movement in general; then it fits for us right here too. It fits for Takoma Park Baptist Church.
I believe that God is calling us into a revolutionary moment. I sense that God is calling us to rise to a new way of living. It is time for a revolution right here at Piney Branch Road and Aspen Street.
I want to share with you, in a fairly personal way, a few reflections about where we are and what we need to become. These will only be fragments. Time does not allow for more today. But I want to offer you this much from my heart.
A few weeks ago many of us gathered in this room, along with scores of former members of the congregation, to celebrate seventy-five years of worship, work, and witness. As I sat up here and looked out over a crowd of more than 300 people, not only did I see many former members; and not only did I see a good number of our present-day leadership; but also I saw the absences. I noticed that many of you who normally come to worship were simply not here for the anniversary. And I wondered what that meant.
Let me guess. Is it possible that you felt that the anniversary would be nothing but an exercise in nostalgia, nothing but a celebration of the past, nothing that would speak to your lives and to your needs right here, right now. Am I right?
Well, something else happened that day. Former pastor Paul Gillespie preached on the theme, "Keep on keeping on". He said that we needed to keep on with Bible study, we needed to keep on with evangelism, we needed to keep on with our style of worship, we needed to keep on trying to reach all sorts of persons, we needed to keep on serving the needs that we saw here in the community. Keep on keeping on. Well, all right. Who could argue with any of that?
Except that I am hearing that some of us are no longer particularly fulfilled by keeping on keeping on. I am hearing some of you say that you feel restless, dried out, more trapped than free. It absolutely intrigues me that in just the two days … two days … that I’ve been back on duty, several people have spoken to me about hearing bad news instead of good news, about hearing negatives instead of positives about our church, about feeling the need for spiritual renewal! Now I honestly do not know where all of this is coming from, but it’s clear to me that something more than keeping on keeping on needs to be done. And even before these two days, while I was on my study leave, some of the answers began to come.
I believe it is time for revolution. It is time for serious change. Now that could happen in any number of ways.
As some of you know, I went out on study leave asking questions about the direction of my own ministry. I said to the Diaconate and to some others that I knew I had to be open to the Lord’s directive for change. If, in the course of my study and my reflection, that should mean that I ought to seek the Lord’s guidance toward another place to work, well, then, all right. That’s what it means to be radically open to the Spirit of freedom.
But I came to find the very thing I’ve been trying to talk about this morning. Change is rooted in the things which God has already done. Change grows out of the accomplishments of the past. And sometimes God will lead us to see that the best changes come from within, if we will step out in faith with Him.
It would be a real copout to think that we could fix everything by going someplace different. I had a friend who was on the staff of a church where I was a member, and he was having all sorts of problems, most of which he caused himself. When it got really tough, he managed to get a call to another church, and said to me, "Finally, I’m going to a church that has no problems, no problems whatsoever." It was all I could do to bite my tongue and keep from saying, "Well, they’ve got one now." Just going someplace different is not a faithful answer.
So, former pastor Gillespie was right when he told us to keep on keeping on. But present and, I hope, future pastor Smith believes that it is time to take the things we’ve done and valued in the past and find out what is really in them and let them lead us forward into the glorious freedom of God’s future. Paul says, "For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free ... to set the mind on the flesh (that is, on being comfortable) is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace."
It’s time for some change. And to paraphrase the song about peace, "Let there be change on earth, and let it begin with me." Some fragments, just tiny fragments.
It’s time for change in the way we pray and worship together. The spirit is calling us to cast aside our inhibitions, to be more free, more open, more good news in our worship. I hear the Spirit stirring among us to call us to prayer in a deeper way, prayer that is warmhearted and open more than formal and proper. To prayer that listens to the Spirit as well as runs its mouth. It’s not that we have not valued prayer in the past; we have. It’s just that it’s time to let what we have learned in prayer break forth into a revolutionary freshness. It’s time to pray in confession and in tears, time to pray for healing, time to pray with one another. And frankly, I hear the Spirit calling me personally to new forms of prayer, more silence and less jabbering. It’s time for a revolution in prayer, even if it begins with the pastor.
It’s time for a revolution in the way we deal with knowledge. The Spirit is calling us to become serious, disciplined, authentic students of everything which God is about. I hear the Spirit calling us to the Scriptures, more than just casual quotation. I hear the Spirit summoning us to create new Bible classes, to examine the great issues of our time, to be equipped. And, frankly, again, during my study leave, I really got in touch with my own sin at this point; my sin has been to fall into the trap of thinking I was working for the Lord only when I was busy, busy, busy, and not when I was studying. That’s wrong and stupid and unproductive. My value to you is greatest when I keep on growing as a student. It’s time, I say, for a revolution in knowledge, and it will begin with the pastor.
It’s time for a revolution, too, in the way we minister in this city and community. The spirit is calling us to open our eyes and find out who is around us and what their needs are. The Spirit asks us to see real people with real needs, and to serve those needs with a glad heart.
Can you hear the Spirit is saying to us, "So for twenty years you’ve done Wednesday Club and you’ve served people with mental impairments. Fine. But who else is there who needs the church?" Step into the future.
The Spirit is saying to us, "So thirty years ago you decided to be an interracial church. Fine. But what does the fact of racism call you to do today? Who else is out there needing to be included?" Step in faith into the future.
The Spirit is saying to us, "So seventy-five years ago you decided that you would be a church involved in missions. Fine. But now do you have some young people who are challenged to missions and ministry? Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?"
Personally, I feel the Spirit calling me to discover the needs of the children of our community. I feel the Spirit nudging me to focus on personal work and evangelism. I sense the Spirit asking me to get involved with the unreached, the lonely, and the desperate, so that they might hear the good news of redemptive freedom. "To set the mind on the flesh [that is, on being comfortable] is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace."
It’s time for a revolution, a revolution that values the past, sees the incompleteness of the present, and is willing to step out in faith into the future, where God gives freedom.
Several months ago, during the cold weather (and what wouldn’t we give for some cold weather right now?), we began to feel a strong breeze blowing through this building. It was incredible how strong and how cool that wind was. But there were no windows and no doors open down here. We looked and looked and tried to walk toward where it seemed to be coming from. And finally we found the source. All the way upstairs, past the third floor, there is a stairway and a door that leads out on to the roof. That door had not been properly closed and the wind had blown it off its hinges. The wind entered that one little space, but filled and cooled the whole house.
Your pastor may be a little unhinged too. But he prays that the Spirit may blow through his little space and stir up all of this church. Isn’t that a revolutionary thought?