Side By Side


Here are the thoughts that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the Baptism of the Lord Sunday, 11 January 2004. The scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 43: 1 – 7; Acts 8: 14 – 17; and Luke 3: 15 – 17, 21 – 22.

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On my desk is a picture of two guys standing side by side, long after their glory days in college. It is an interesting picture because, at least for the two of them, it evokes memories of another day some twenty-six years before when they stood side by side in an entirely different situation. The two guys are Alphonso Jackson, President Bush’s nominee for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and myself. It was taken during ceremonies at Truman State University in 1995 when the name of the college was changed from Northeast Missouri State University to Truman State University.

But the significance of the picture is not what we have become or what we were back then in 1995 but what we were. In 1966, I was fifteen year old whiz kid experiencing college for the very first time; Al was a nineteen year old transfer from Dallas, Texas, seeking to get his grades up so that he could run track for Kenneth Gardner and the Bulldogs of Northeast Missouri State. I have always said that the college should put a sign on the door of Missouri Hall 520 indicating what happened to the occupants of that room during the summer of 1966.

The significance of that 1995 picture is that there is another picture of the two of us. For many years, I thought that a copy of the picture existed in the archives of one of the Missouri newspapers but I have never been able to find it. It may be that this picture only existed in one brief moment of television and I doubt that the cameraman who took the video kept a copy.

In the spring of 1969, the black students at Truman sought to gain the right to equal housing in the city of Kirksville. Though the university had been a part of the city for over one hundred years, the relationship between the two institutions was never the best. The university developed essentially as a regional university with many of its students coming from within 60 miles of Kirksville. This allowed them to live at home and drive to school.

There was a substantial population, however, that came from beyond the regional boundaries of the college and needed to live on the campus. And therein lie the problem. It was possible, if you were a white student, to find a place to live off-campus. But for the black students, however, this was not possible. The landlords of Kirksville, reluctant to rent to white students but willing to take their money, did not want to rent to black students at all. The Association of Black Collegians, the recognized black student organization, first went to the Board of Regents asking for help in resolving this problem.

The Board refused, saying that it was not their problem. The ABC then went to the City Council of Kirksville asking for their help. The Council also refused to help, saying that it was not their problem and they needed to work through the university. With a stalemate fast developing and because it was the season of sit-ins and demonstrations, the ABC occupied the administration building.

I was a sophomore that spring, struggling with the realities of college education. The demands of college had taken me away from college life and I knew nothing of what was happening on the other side of the campus. But either by word of mouth or some announcement on the local radio station, I heard that the administration building had been occupied and a confrontation was developing between the black students in the building and white students outside the building. (Despite its connotation as the state’s liberal arts university today, it was then and probably still is today a very politically conservative area.)

So when I heard what was happening, I immediately went over to the administration building. I was fortunate and able to get into the building. I went because the people in the building were my friends and times like these demanded that you support your friends. That is when the other picture was taken. A news cameraman was taking pictures inside the administration building. The picture that I speak of shows a young, longhaired white boy standing next to Alphonso Jackson and the other leaders of the Association of Black Collegians. It is not the type of picture that mothers, fathers, grandmothers and other relatives (or at least my mother, father, and grandmother) speak of with pride. The news footage was broadcast on the St. Louis stations where my grandmother saw it; she immediately called my parents and told them what I was doing. Now, my family had never easily accepted my political activities and the knowledge that I appeared to be leading a campus sit-in didn’t help matters either. But I wasn’t standing there because of my politics; I was standing there because Al was my friend. Interestingly enough, while some whites were involved in the negotiations, most of the white activists were nowhere to be found. Politics may have motivated me in part, I am sure. But I was raised with the thought that if you accepted Christ, you fought for peace, justice, and righteousness. More than anything else, that is what lead me to enter the building that night.

What are friends for? Do they stand by your side only in times of your success? Or are they there no matter what? If you say you are a friend, are you there when you are needed? The disciples had been with Jesus for over three years, walking by his side, learning from him, and now were faced with the twin shocks of seeing Christ die on the cross and his resurrection. As friends, they were together.

It was that time right after the Pentecost when people were being baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. But as the reading for today notes, the baptism had not been accompanied by the reception of the Holy Spirit. Peter and John were sent by the leaders of the Jerusalem church to complete the task of baptism and to bring the Holy Spirit into the lives of the newly baptized people of Samaria.

This was an interesting time for the disciples. The persecution of the early Church was just beginning; it was also a time of strife within the new church. Paul was still Saul and was actively involved in the persecution of early Christians. The passages just before today’s reading describe the stoning of Stephen and Saul’s silent presence at that time. But Saul is about to encounter Jesus on the road to Damascus and be born again as Paul, the great missionary charged with taking the Gospel message to the Gentiles.

In the meantime, Peter is leading the church in Jerusalem and insisting that all those who decide to follow Christ must first become Jews. It was the opinion of the early church leaders that one must first be a Jew before becoming a Christian. This strict interpretation of the conversion process almost killed the early church before it could begin.

But Peter ultimately received a vision from God that told him that the legalistic approaches he was advocating was inappropriate and not needed. If someone wanted to follow Jesus, that was all that was needed. Peter’s vision reminded him that God does not show favoritism. (Acts 10: 34)  God does not favor an individual because of his station in life, his nationality, or his material possessions. He does, however, respect his character and judge his work. The invitation to follow Christ is given because of one’s belief in Christ, not who he is or what he does. When we insist on some legalistic point of view or hold to some strict requirements for success, we lose sight of this important part of belonging to the Christian community.

There are four views of the Christian community prevalent today. The first is the "new paradigm" style. This style, suggested by the Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, suggests that mainline churches will grow if they minimize their distinctiveness and offer seekers, those individuals looking for a home church, what they want – an anonymous, symbolically neutral, user-friendly church. The second style is an "evangelical style." This style suggests that growth is found in evangelism based on a conservative theology.

The third style is a "diagnostic" one. Its proponents contend that mainline congregations suffer from systematic problems within the body of the church. Neither the theology of the church nor its traditions are the problems; rather, the institution itself is broken and must be fixed or repaired before the church can begin to grow again.

Each of these styles has its own proponents; each style brings suggestions as to how churches struggling in today’s society can best meet cope. But a fourth style is appearing and I hope that it holds more promise than the three others do.

This fourth style seems to acknowledge that evangelism need not necessarily be conservative. It also acknowledges that a congregation with a traditional worship style and traditional building can provide a significant worship experience. This fourth style is called an "intentional style" and is characterized by a blend of local vision, denominational identity and Christian practice. In congregations, the people have chosen to embrace or recreate practices drawn from long Christian tradition – practices that bind them together and connect them with older patterns of living as meaningful ways to relate to a post-Christian society. This does not come about by birth but rather choice and through reflective engagement, individually and communally. The importance of this style is that it may be the best way for mainline Protestant churches to revitalize their congregations and move forward in mission.

This is a style based as much on the community of believers as it is on one’s individual belief. It is a style that uses the traditions of the Christian church to move forward. But it requires a commitment; it requires nurturing and a willingness to change as God’s spirit directs. (Adapted from "The road to vital churches is paved with good intentions", printed in Context (January 2004, part B; volume 36, number 1)

I think this is what kept the early church together; I think this is what will keep the present church together. But it must be with an understanding that you cannot be anonymous in the church nor can we all be of the same mindset. This is the Sunday that marks the baptism of Jesus. It is a reminder that we are set apart as a particular kind of person – one owned by God. Those who have been baptized are called to live out the meaning of this remarkable reality.

When a child is baptized in the United Methodist Church, we as members of the community acknowledge that we have a role to play in that child’s upbringing. There will be forces attempted to redefine anyone who is baptized. Commercial messages will attempt to convince that person that a great economic machine whose purpose is to make them a consumer owns him or her, and their sole purpose in life is to keep that machine alive. Other messages will tell them that they belong to no one but themselves, and that individualism is the supreme god.

But the message is that we can be individuals but we are still the children of God. Look at the words of the baptism ritual; until such time that a child is actually baptized, he or she is referred to as "this child." It is only when they are baptized in the name and spirit of God that they have a name.

God, through Isaiah, reminded the people of Israel that He called them by name. And He just doesn’t call us by name, He stands by us so that we will not be overwhelmed by the rivers we must cross or the fires that we may endure. Isaiah reminds us through his words that God places us in a unique position and that He will be there by our side, no matter what may happen. (Adapted from "Naming names" by Jack Good, in Christian Century, 27 December 2003)

If we are to revitalize Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church and I think that that is the proper term, we must remember why people gathered together in those first Methodist societies some two hundred and fifty years ago. We must begin to see that what brought them together was a chance to be part of a community that practiced what it truly believed. The presence of this church in this time must reflect that same belief. It will call for each of us to look at who we are and listen for the call of Christ, asking if we are ready to follow Him.

It begins with our journey to the communion rail this morning. We are reminded that this communion is given to all, not simply to a select group. We are reminded that the only qualification for coming to this communion is that you have an open heart, willing to accept the presence of Christ as your Savior.

Christ gathered with His disciples that evening in the Upper Room, not as a teacher with his pupils but as a friend among friends. He told them that day that as long as they remembered the traditions that he was setting forth that night, He would always be with them. The prophet Isaiah told us that God would be there right by our sides no matter what the problems might be. You are invited to come to the table side by side with your friends and neighbors in this community of Christ. You are challenged to reach out to those not here today and bring them in.


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2 thoughts on “Side By Side

  1. Pingback: Defining Love « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

  2. Pingback: “Tell Me the Truth, But . . .” « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

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