Summary: Initial sermon of interim pastorate. As Paul lived into relationship with God prior to theologizing, I thank God for the faithfulness in the congregation’s history; for mutual enrichment in its diversity; and for coming victory when no one need be ashame
God is not a problem to be solved. God is a mystery with whom we are to live. God is not an equation to be worked out in mathematical precision; God is personal, with whom we connect.
God is a who, a where, and a when -- acting, living, and doing; and if God is sometimes a what and a why, an issue to be thought through, then that is witness only to our limitations and not to His. God is not a problem to be solved. God is a mystery with whom we are to live.
And so, first thank God. Let the first words out of my mouth this morning be, “Thank God”. For thanking comes before thinking. Experiencing God comes before analyzing God. Doxology comes before theology. First thank God.
That was the apostle Paul’s stance. Here he is, at the outset of this glorious Letter to the Romans, getting ready for a new phase in his ministry. He is an experienced preacher and teacher. He has been on mission in many places. But now, closer to the end of his life than to its beginning, he looks toward a new set of friends and a new locale into which he understands God to be calling. So before he explains himself, before he presumes to instruct the Roman Christians in Theology 101, before he takes on knotty questions about Christian lifestyles or church practices or how to pay the bills – all of which he will eventually get to – before he turns his magnificent mind to the whole range of issues before him – first he thanks God. First he lives into God and only then does he spin out ideas about God. God is not a problem to be solved. God is a mystery with whom we are to live.
Seems like the right place for a brand new interim pastor to begin too. Seems like the right stance for one who is here not simply as a hired hand for twenty minutes of religious talk every Sunday, but who is here as a pastor and preacher profoundly passionate about the Gospel. First I thank God.
Again, why? Because God is not so much a problem to be solved as God is a mystery with whom we have to live. And we begin by living into the moment with this God; we begin by encountering Him, heart to heart and person-to-person. Not merely in sermons and speeches, not simply in following the order of Sunday service, not alone in singing hymns and bowing in prayer – but with an intimate, brash, messy, passionate connection. First thank God. May I break that open with you today?
First, thank God for the faith that has been proclaimed here. Thank God for all that you have received from those who have carefully taught and worked, so that today here is a strong church and a sense of shared witness that means something real to you and your community. Paul’s words are worth echoing, “I thank my God … for all of you, for your faith is proclaimed throughout the world.”
Some of you know that I have a connection with this church, from past years. During the period after the pastorate of Robert May, I spent some nine months in 1979 and 1980 preaching here, Sunday morning and Sunday evening, trying to help you move forward. Those were good months for me, making friends, watching you do church – how impressed I was that you carefully prepared people for church membership rather than just blindly putting their names on the church roll!
One thing that I recall vividly – and some of you have heard this story before – is that the search committee brought a candidate to visit the church. This candidate and I had a good conversation about what you needed, but he felt that this was not the right place for him. However, his good friend, the one who had suggested him in the first place, might be interested. And so I got this excited phone call from the Assistant Pastor of Chevy Chase Baptist Church, one Charles Updike: “Joe, I think I want to learn more about this Gaithersburg church. Can I take you to lunch?” Well, in those penurious days, lunch was a Big Mac and fries. We can do better now! But we talked … Charlie’s name went before your committee … and the rest, as they say, is history.
Ah, but what a history! Growth in membership; new buildings and new ethnic congregations; youth work, musical ensembles, missions involvement, on and on and on. You have sent so many sons and daughters into the ministry it has become a standing joke within the Scholarship Committee of our D. C. Baptist Foundation that Gaithersburg is sending everybody in the church to seminary, and you are going to soak up all of our scholarship budget! So when I began to reconnect with you a few days ago, I was not surprised to find that a legacy of influence and ministry and service is known, not just here in this community, but across the region and indeed across the world.