Renewal of Vows Sermon 2018
During Holy Week, Bishop Wright preached on honoring the legacy and 50th anniversary of the death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the annual gathering of the clergy and laity to reaffirm our ordination and baptismal vows.
Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
We are gathered this morning because today is the day, in our common life, when we refresh our promises to God and to one another. I invited you here, because in just a few days, we will mark the 50th anniversary of the martyrdom of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And, being that we are all Georgians now, and Martin and Coretta’s earthly remains are lying just outside, it seems good to stop here and remember, and maybe even borrow some of their resolve for service. More than that, I invited you here because there are three important ideas that are easy to illustrate in this space. They are simple but eternal ideas. They are Possibility, Pain and Power.
You know that Dr. King was a child of the church. He was reared in this sanctuary. He learned the Bible stories in this place-learned the church’s hymns here. Here he learned to question professions of love for God without evidence of neighbor-love. Here he was taught that baptism ought to give you a quarrel with the status quo. In this building, he learned that leadership is the most difficult, but most noble of vocations. He left this modest building and with the help of many.… With the help of Almighty God…he was sent out to change the world. This is important because the local parish is still the hope of the world. I said it, and I believe it. The local parish is still the hope of the world. If that sounds like too much to say, look around. This is a totally average parish. Still, from this place a soul was equipped to confront pharaohs. Mobilize people. And call a nation to its better self.
And this sanctuary is not unique in calling people to do that work. That is the calling of every parish church. Of your parish church. Church is not simply a place to belong and believe but a place of becoming. Ours is to make disciples-people confident in the knowledge that there is nothing that is impossible for God. That God is bigger than anything that can ever be faced. When we gather in our parishes and places of ministry for worship and teaching, this sense of possibility needs to be transmitted or the gospel hasn’t been preached or modeled. When we renew our vows today perhaps what needs renewing is not our intention to be faithful to our respective vows. Perhaps what needs renewing is our sense of possibility. Maybe what is needed is for us to grasp again a God sized sense of what is possible. Many here are relatively new to ministry. Others of us have been at it awhile. Either way the young can lose their sense of Godly possibility because of the tyranny of The way we’ve always done it -ism. The rest of us can lose our sense of divine possibility because of pernicious cynicism or corrosive careerism. In any case, let this place remind each of us of what is at stake in our work. And, to what scope and scale our work must rise. What God in each person of the Trinity would have us accomplish is to purposefully move people from church affiliates to Christ-centered people. That is the work. Everything else is a trifle! Each week would-be Martins and Corettas place themselves in our care. People come wanting to “see Jesus.” They want Jesus because they know intuitively and viscerally that Jesus unlocks possibility in his followers. If we preach as Paul has instructed, “that God can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine….” A question surfaces for us, do we believe it or not? If not, there’s no shame or condemnation. But neither should there be any avoidance of the question either. What we can do today is pray. Lord help my unbelief. We can pray, Lord at this renewal, restore in me a sense of what is possible for me and for those you have entrusted to my care. Lord replace what I think is possible for what you know to be possible!
We know the date April 4, 1968, but it was five days later in this sanctuary that Martin King was funeralized. You remember the photo. Coretta at the end of that pew, right there, covered in a black veil with her sobbing daughter’s head in her lap. Her face silently speaking strength and dignity. But her veil could not cover her pain. Fifteen months later, Dr. King’s brother, A.D. would be funeralized here. A victim of what the coroner called an “accidental drowning.” Then there was Dr. King’s mother. Six years after burying Martin she was shot to death in this sanctuary while playing the organ at morning worship. Another parishioner was killed that day, a deacon. Gun violence has even scarred this place. What I want to point out here is, this place knows pain. It’s in the walls and the wood. And if you’ll acknowledge that, then maybe, in the spirit of fellowship, you could acknowledge your own pain in this place. Or, at least pledge to. Why? Because to renew our vows without acknowledging pain, sorrow and profound disappointment as we endeavor to be faithful, is nothing more than putting lipstick on a pig. Even if your pain is not as acute or public as the King family, still our effectiveness as pastors and evangelists, as teachers and spiritual companions is to a significant degree about how we process our pain and encourage others to do the same. This is the great gift that God wants to give to the church and to the world through us. That you and I who are deeply and regularly acquainted with sorrow are simultaneously, faithfully, casting our cares on God in the midst of our pain. Not in general or naively, but expertly and yes, confidently! To do that is to allow the vows we make again today more real in dimension, color and usefulness to the body of Christ. It is to acknowledge our own nail-scarred palms while demonstrating the power of the Resurrection.
We who speak to and for the church are in a privileged position. The privilege is a simple one. We get to “comfort one another with the comfort we ourselves have been comforted with.” Said another way, we refuse to use the placebos of denial, despair and euphemism, for our pain. We choose to acknowledge our pain and grief and losses because we know that in God wheat dies to be born again. That joy comes at the end of tears. That God doesn’t cause pain but can use pain if we let God. That’s what I believe held Daddy King, Martin Sr., together after losing two children and a wife in this place. And that’s what I believe will hold us steady in the face of our pain. Just listen to the defiant resolution of the psalmist today, “you are my refuge since my youth. You have been my hope. My mouth is filled with your praise… I have become a sign to many.”
We are utterly clothed in grace, you and I. When we build the ceiling height of our faith too low, God’s extraordinary possibilities renovate us. When pain invades our lives and hearts, God is just a groan away–a very present help in trouble. Undergirding all of this is the astute, audacious, inexhaustible power source we call God. And this power is available to us through the partnership we call faith to achieve God’s purposes in the real world.
I watched the King birthday celebration this January. Maybe you did. It’s always a marathon event. Any celebration of Dr. King brings the inner preacher out of people, and time boundaries get shredded. Preacher after preacher mounted the pulpit and tried their best to leave something indelible on the congregation. But the one who stood out to me was a South Korean pastor. I don’t remember his name. I do remember that his broken English was a lot better than my Spanish. I remember the power of his faith. He shared that, because of what Dr. King was able to do in places like Alabama and Georgia he was inspired to believe that someday North Korea and South Korea could be united. I was jarred by the power of his faith. Or, how power had come through his faith to my ear. He wasn’t believing in his own eloquence, ability or reason. He was believing that there’s power in the Cross of Jesus to accomplish progress in this world. Listen! He believed his hope in God should correspond to the level of God’s power demonstrated in the resurrection of Jesus. What delighted my soul was that this Power had so charmed him until he wasn’t afraid to sound idealistic or simply optimistic in English or in Korean. For him that bold statement, one day two Koreas will become one, was exactly what Paul told us, “the Cross is foolishness to some but to us, who God is saving, it is the power of God.” The purpose of our renewal today is so that you and I might escape the most dangerous threat facing the church. That is, “taking on a form of Godliness but denying the power thereof.”
If anything gets renewed today let it be the scope and scale of what we believe is possible in God. If anything gets renewed today, let it be our ability to stay curious even in our pain, recognizing that God uses everything for learning and for the benefit of the world. If anything gets renewed today, let it be our courage to be foolish for a God who makes life out of death. Light out of darkness. And turns the cowering into conquerors.
“Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy; To the only wise God our Saviour be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.”