Summary: Preached at the National Baptist Memorial Church -- a congregation facing selecting a pastor, dealing with an aging building, and in decline. The issue is whether we will stop depending on just being "good" and will live out of grace to bear our witness
I heard not long ago about a very special automobile. It was built in the 1920’s by the Italian firm Bugatti, and it was designed for the outrageously wealthy. This car had 450 horses under the hood, it was 22 feet long and weighed 6000 pounds. It was hand-crafted of the finest materials, it handled like a dream, and cost about $400,000, and that was in 1920’s money. A tremendous piece of work; only a few were made. According to the story I read, six copies of the Bugatti are still known to exist. One of them is owned by a retired General, who keeps it in a secure garage, locked away, polished and shiny, with neither spot nor blemish. You see, although the car is about 80 years old, it is never driven. It has only some 3200 miles on it, and is now a piece of art in a private museum, where few even see it and none use it. It has all this power, but the power is not being used. It contains all this potential, but it is never turned on. It has plenty of “get up and go” but no one ever gets it up and never does it go.
A bit like some of us, unless I miss my guess. A bit like contemporary Christians, who like to look good, but who seldom put that goodness to use. And more than a bit like today’s churches, who may look monumental, but who have not yet put to use the go-power they really have.
The story is told that one day a tour guide was taking people around Westminster Abbey, probably the most famous church in England. The guide pointed out the ancient church’s beauties, its glorious windows, the graves of kings and queens, the throne where England’s monarchs are crowned. She went on and on about the musician’s corner, the poet’s corner, and all the great souls remembered in that place. But when she paused for questions, one tourist asked a penetrating one. Said the tourist, “This is a lovely and historic church. But has anyone been saved here lately?”
We gather for worship today in a monumental church building, whose history is outstanding, and which acts as a witness to the missionary spirit of our Baptist tradition. But don’t we have to ask, “Has anyone been saved here lately?” Isn’t that an important question? It connects with my theme, “from goodness to going”. Are we interested in looking good, but unused and secluded? Or are we interested in going into all the world to preach the gospel to every creature?
Two men’s lives intersected one day. And for both of them it meant moving from goodness to going. For both of them it meant a moment when, in obedience to Christ, they had to move beyond just being good and had to become goers.
One of those two men was Saul of Tarsus. By the standards of his time, Saul looked good. Saul was good. In fact Saul was so good you couldn’t stand him! Saul was one of those people who are so absolutely convinced that they are right, they set out to bash everybody who disagrees with them. So persuaded was Saul that he had his religion right that he worked night and day to root out these Christian folks. And it was not enough to get the ones in Jerusalem; Saul decided to hop down the road and ferret out the believers in Damascus too.
Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
Oh, yes indeed, Saul was a good man, an excessively good man. He was following his code strictly and rigidly. Saul is alive today in people who set off bombs in subway trains, so sure that their God calls them to destroy others. Saul is alive today among Baptist Christian folks who try to tell other Baptist Christian folks to do it my way or either I’m out of here or, sometimes, you get out of here! Saul is alive and well today, in those who just have to be good in all the wrong kinds of ways, in those who have to look good at the expense of charity.
And Saul is alive and well today, too, in Washington. Not only the official Washington of partisan politics, and not only the professional Washington of workaholics trying to get ahead, but Saul and his dedication to goodness at any price is even alive in the churches. As a pastor I sat through church business meetings and listened to some of my parishioners rip into others mercilessly, wanting to look good at others’ expense. I was reminded of the description written of one of his characters by Nathaniel Hawthorne, “She’s the sort of women who lives for others ... and you can always tell the others by that hunted look!”.