I’m not sure how it is among Methodists, but we Baptist folks have a strange custom of hiding when we come to church. We hide. We try to get in and get out without being noticed. I don’t know whether Methodists are infected with this disease, but with Baptists it is an epidemic. We hide.
How does that work? Well, if I tell you, you might start doing it too, and I wouldn’t want to leave that legacy for Pastor Stroman! But maybe I can give you a few hints. Some hide by coming in late. Baptist folks, you see, don’t think anything really happens until the preaching begins, and so they think nothing of missing a few hymns and a couple of prayers. All the preliminaries, as some would say. One member of my congregation refers to everything but the preaching as “all that junk.” “I can do without all that junk.”! So we hide by coming in late. In fact, it has even been unkindly suggested that some try to make sure they’re late enough to miss the offering plate!
Or, if they don’t come late, Baptist folks think they can hide by leaving early. We have a pattern of ending our worship services with an invitation. We do try our best, every Sunday, to persuade somebody to receive the Savior or to join the church. And so when I finish my message and announce the invitation hymn, and there is a flurry of activity out there in the pews, I get really excited. Somebody’s coming! Except, no, hey are going the other way! Walking up the aisle to leave instead of down the aisle to join. They are hiding. They don’t want to be caught in the messy business of deciding about Christ and His church, and so they run and hide. They don’t want the pastor or a deacon to say, “Haven’t seen you in a while,” and so they hide.
Now, it is true, that one of them did tell me that the reason he and his wife leave early is that they want to be sure to get to the restaurant before the Methodists do! So maybe I can blame you for these hurry-up departures!
We just have folks who want to hide. They do not want to be seen in the house of the Lord. They do want to come and gather in a blessing or two. They do want to get their names on heaven’s attendance books, just in case that might add up to something when the death angel stops by. But they do not want to get involved. They do not want to be asked any questions. They do not want to respond to any demands. They just want to hide.
Now I’ve also noticed that in addition to the late arrivals and the early departures, there is another thing that the hiders do. They seat themselves in a way that says, “Please don’t notice me.” Their posture says, “I’m not really here.” What do I mean? Well, first, they sit on a back pew; then they slouch down in the seat, if possible behind somebody’s big hat; and, most of all, they lower their chins and they draw in their arms and just make themselves as small as possible. Do you have anybody like that? Folks who get all wrapped up in themselves and hope they can hide.
Actually, a lot of us are like that. A great many of us are all wrapped up in ourselves and hoping we can hide. We are sitting on the greatest truths the world has ever known, but we are hiding them. We are in possession of the most magnificent realities that have ever been uttered, but we are concealing them. We know that in Jesus Christ, shattered lives can be repaired, but we haven’t told anybody about that. We know that in our churches, there is a remarkable and redemptive fellowship, but who knows that? Who has heard that from us? We are hiding.
The Psalmist, however, had learned that if God has done something for you, you want to tell that good news. He had discovered that if God has done something for you, then you tell it, right up front, because the depth and breadth of God’s mercy is so great. The story just has to be told. Some things are just too wide to hide:
“He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock .. He put a new song in my mouth ... I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; see, I have not restrained my lips ... I have not hidden your saving help within my heart, I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.”
One of the great lessons here is that the Psalmist knew his own story, and remembered how far he had come. He understood his own history, and recognized the wideness of God’s mercy. When he had felt desolate and insecure, God had included him. God had found him. God had lifted him up. The Psalmist remembered that he had a story to tell. He remembered that his own history told of the wideness of God’s love. His own story proved that God’s mercy was too wide to hide. “He drew me up from the desolate pit ... I have not hidden your saving help.”
You and I have stories to tell, stories of the greatness of God’s mercy. But the trouble is that some of us are hiding from our own stories, and we don’t want to tell them. I hear of families who protect their children from unpleasant history. They say they don’t want their children to know about slavery or about the era of segregation. They want to hide that history. I do understand. Those were brutal things, incredibly brutal things. But those who do not understand their history are doomed to repeat it! We need to tell the story, for, you see, the story of slavery is also a story of deliverance. God in his wide mercy reached out and worked a work of deliverance. The story of Dr. King is a story of deliverance; God sent a Moses to lead a people and lift them. And so to hide from the bad old days is to hide from the story of the mercy of God. If you do not know your own story, if you hide from your own story, you will never be a witness to the wideness of God’s mercy.
You know, our Jewish friends have been done some things that we ought to learn from. They are cultivating their history. They are putting it right out there for all to see, nothing hidden, no matter how ugly it may be. Go down to the Holocaust Museum, and you will see a terrible slice of history, but it is the history of a people who are saying, “We will never forget. Never again, will this happen to us, for we will not forget. God has delivered us.” They are telling their own history. They are not hiding it, nor are they hiding the wideness of God’s mercy. We need to learn from that.
A few years ago I sat down with some Howard University students and some of the other chaplains there to plan a worship service. Someone suggested that we use the ancient Jewish Passover service, and then both Christianize it and blackenize it, so that the Biblical story of how God freed the slaves from Egypt would also tell the story of deliverance from slavery and oppression. Well, as we got into talking about that, I found that all of us middle-aged types were enthusiastic about the idea; we saw that such a service would be right on target. But the young people, the students, that was another matter! They said, “Oppression? Who’s been oppressed? I haven’t been oppressed. Freedom? I’m free. I can go anywhere I want to. I don’t have any problems.” So soon we forget. Dr. King in his grave less than fifteen years at that time, and so soon we forget, unless we know and tell our own story. Unless we know and do not hide the story of God’s wide mercy.
May I tell you some fragments from my own story? I want to tell of the wideness of God’s mercy. I feel that what God has done for me is too wide to hide. I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, a segregated city, back in nineteen hundred and none-of-your-business! I grew up in a white neighborhood, attended white schools. I went to Sunday School and was baptized in a white Southern Baptist church. My world was narrow. My world was restricted. My world hid things.
But I remember. I remember 1954, Brown vs. Board of Education. I was a teenager, in high school, when that decision came out. I remember how the people of my church agonized over it. They knew what their southern culture had taught them to feel; but they also knew what their Bibles taught them. And they wept. They struggled at seeing God’s mighty hand at work. Something stirred in my soul. I remember that. That’s a part of my story.
I remember 1958. I was a college student, working in North Carolina for a major chemical company. There I learned what discrimination was really all about, seeing that the only jobs open to persons of color were the most menial jobs. I decided not to hide my feelings about that. I wrote a report, only to be told that the aim of this corporation was to make money for the stockholders, not to solve society’s problems. That’s just a little part of my story, just a little part of my waking up, a small part of God’s gift to me. I wanted to tell you, because I think it is too wide to hide.
After seminary, I went into campus ministry, working on a college campus. I remember 1964, the year of the Civil Rights act. I remember taking some of the students at Berea College to the Kentucky state capitol grounds to hear the ringing oratory of a brilliant young preacher named Martin Luther King. One of the things he said was that no one is free until all are free. No one is free until all are free; and that included me. I remember feeling that somehow, some way, God was going to do something in my life around this racism thing. I tell you that because, you see, God’s moving Spirit is too wide to hide.
I remember more. I remember 1971, when I was invited to come to Washington to begin Baptist ministry at the University of Maryland. I remember it because when we were leaving Kentucky, people said to us, “Hope you know what you’re doing. You know THEY are in charge up there in Washington.” It soon became clear who this mysterious THEY was. I remember feeling disappointment that my friends did not see the wideness of God’s love for all people. But I also remember that when my wife and I made our first trip to the Washington area, looking for housing, and our car ran out of gasoline somewhere out in Montgomery County, and we had no clue where we were .. I still remember the family on whose door we knocked took us in, gave us coffee and sandwiches, let us use their phone and even their triple-A card, and we said to each other, “Wait until they hear back in Kentucky what a black family we don’t even know did for us.”
Are you hearing me? Do you see what I am trying to say? When good things happen, and God is in it, you must remember that history, and you must tell it! When the Lord lifts you up out of the miry clay and puts your feet on solid rock, you must not hide it, because it is a part of the wideness of God’s mercy. It is a part of the breadth of God’s love. And it is too wide to hide.
Oh, I could go on. I could tell you that I remember 1976, when I became Baptist chaplain at Howard University, and the Methodist chaplain, Joe Gipson, took one look at me and said, “All right, we aren’t going to have any dashiki-wearing white liberals on this campus. You put on a suit and tie and look like a preacher and be yourself.” Best advice I ever got. Not to hide myself as one of God’s creatures, but just to tell the story. Just to demonstrate the wideness of God’s love. I remember 1980, when the Howard chaplains were invited to share in a communion service for a certain group, but when that group heard that one of the chaplains was white, they said, “We don’t want him. Leave him at home.” And do you know what the other chaplains did? They said, “If you won’t accept our brother, you don’t get us either.” God’s love is wide. God’s love accepts and includes all of us.
Oh, I just have to tell my own story. It demonstrates just how wide God’s love is. I am a witness to the wideness of God’s mercy. It is too wide to hide. And when you and I know our own stories, as the Psalmist did, we must tell them to others. The story of the love of God is simply too wide to hide.
Today, however, as we worship together as brothers and sisters in the body of Christ, there is a part of this Scripture that still challenges me. There is something here that pushes my envelope and urges me to be more than I have been. And that is the Psalmist’s word that he has “told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation.” The great congregation. Sounds a bit wider, doesn’t it, than just my church? Maybe a bit wider than even one branch of Christendom. Then he says it again, “I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.” I have not hidden the story of God’s mercy; I have told it far and wide. I have told it in the greater congregation, I have told it to others who name the Lord’s name. I have seen that the story of God’s redemptive love is vaster far than one little group or one little church or one little spot on one little corner.
I want to suggest to you today that what the Lord is doing and wants to do in the Takoma neighborhood is wider than what any one church can do. I want to suggest to you today that when we look around and discover what God is about, it is too wide to hide. I want to suggest that we need to open up to one another and to work together for redemptive purposes in this community. If we are going to build on Dr. King’s legacy, it needs to be more than this church doing its own thing, my church off in its corner, somebody else’s church doing this or that behind closed doors. If we are going to honor Dr. King and his story today, and if we are going to tackle some of the unsolved problems, then today needs to be a new day for the great congregation, for all of God’s people in this community.
You see, our other Scripture text tells us clearly what we ought to be about. The prophet Micah puts it out there as forcefully as anybody possible could, “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” That’s a pretty strong agenda for any Christian and for any church. It’s more than what we at Takoma Park Baptist Church can do, I know; I suspect it’s more than the heart strangely warmed Methodists of Albright can do as well.
“I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.” What if our two churches and the other churches of this community took that seriously, and began to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God in the streets of Takoma? What might happen?
What if, in the name of doing justice, we no longer hid our resources, but together, in the name of Christ, began to work for things that would help people find good housing and build a great neighborhood? I know that your church is already in conversations about one such project. We at Takoma are not there yet. We need to be. God’s justice is more than what Albright is doing, as good as that is. God’s justice is too wide to hide; it belongs to the great congregation.
What is, in the name of doing justice, we were to work with the law enforcement establishment in this community? We at Takoma are privileged to have as part of our family the new police commander for the 4th District; we are planning a public service of prayer for him and his officers. Your pastor has expressed interest in that. We will enlist other pastors, if we can. We will not hide this opportunity within ourselves. It is too wide to hide. It deserves to be shared with the great congregation.
Doing justice, and then loving kindness. Micah says we are to love kindness. What if, in the name of loving kindness, we were to work together, all the churches, for the needs of the children and the youth of this community? What if we were to pool our resources and do something powerful for young people? Whenever I am on Rittenhouse Street I remember the day, almost exactly seven years ago, when one of our church’s young men was shot to death, right up here at Georgia Avenue. Well, since that time we’ve done some things for the youth of the community, and one of our members who is active in that work said to me one day, “We need to get all the churches working with our teenagers. We need every church working together.” Do you know what I told her? I told her, it won’t happen, because the churches are in competition with one another, the churches are suspicious of one another. She was shocked. Do you know what she said to that? She said, “The churches are in competition with one another? I would have thought it was the devil that was the competition!”. She’s right, you know. When it comes to saving our youth, the love and power and mercy of Christ is just too wide to hide. We ought to be working together, in the great congregation.
Doing justice, loving mercy, and then there is walking humbly with God. The churches of Takoma have much to offer one another, just in simple teaching and fellowship with the Lord. Takoma has put over 100 people through discipleship courses. We’re about to start seven more discipleship groups. Come on over and share in them! We aren’t going to hurt you! We aren’t going to pollute you or try to baptize you. Well, we might baptize some of you, as several here know, but we aren’t going to make Baptists out of you. We just have discipleship courses to share! Why should we hide them?!
In February our church will begin a monthly Family Ministry night. We’re going to offer marriage enrichment and parenting courses and single parent counseling. There ought not to be anything private about that. We hope to serve the entire community with our Family Ministry. A little later on we hope to offer some support groups for people with special needs in their family life. We want to share that with everybody. But I suspect you too have something to share. You too have ministries and programs and perspectives that we at Takoma need to have. So does Nativity. And so does Trinity, and Emory, and New Bethel, and all the rest. What we as God’s people in this community have is simply too wide to hide. The Lord of the church has given us to each other, and His gifts are too great, too deep, and too broad to keep to ourselves. They must be told, they must be shared; they are too wide to hide. And I, for one, shall pray for the day when the Christians of this community, black and white, Methodist and Baptist, stained glass and storefront, all of us, will know that and will not hide from the greater congregation of all of God’s people.
You know, at Christmas time, we put a special kind of Christmas tree, a chrismon tree, in our sanctuary. When we do so, it sits in one of the front aisles, and crowds that front pew quite a bit. Normally, that’s no problem, because, unless we are very crowded, no one sits on that front pew. Remember, we Baptists like to hide, sitting in the back, slouched behind a hat, chin down, arms pulled in, trying to be narrow. However, when we include the Lord’s Supper in our service, four deacons plus the acolyte have to sit in about half a pew. It’s tight. It’s a squeeze. They can hardly breathe, mashed in there. But I saw something the other day. I saw that when those four deacons stand to serve at the Lord’s Table, they can spread out and breathe.
In other words, when you serve, you no longer want to hide. When you stand up and serve, you can demonstrate the mercies of God to all God’s people. Folks who get all wrapped up in themselves do want to hide. But when they learn to serve, they are simply too wide to hide.