Several weeks ago someone shared a sermon with me from a seminary graduation at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond Virginia. As a matter of fact, it was the last commencement of that school because it was closing due to low enrollment and financial instability. A very familiar scenario in this day and age.
The school invited the Reverend Elizabeth Mangham Lott of St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans to preach. A lot of what she said at that graduation rings true for me and for the Christian Church in 2019.
Here are some excerpts from that sermon that I want to share with you…
If not, let me be the first to welcome you to the life and work of the pastor in 2019. I’d venture to say that those of us in transitional ministry settings (standing between what has been and what will be) have no idea what we’re doing half of the time. In any given week at the historic St. Charles Ave. Baptist Church in New Orleans I am a building manager, an entrepreneur, a social justice warrior, a community organizer, an institutional innovator, a therapist, a development director, a wounded healer, a custodian, a really bad bookkeeper, a nonprofit executive director, a midwife, a hospice chaplain, and a preacher.
I am simultaneously preparing something old for burial while trying to assist in the birth of something new; pastoring in the ways of the 20th century while chasing the Spirit’s guidance for the 21st. I have a lot of moments of thinking maybe, just maybe, my congregation and I are gonna pull this thing off and make a sustainable way forward.
But between you and me, sometimes all it takes is one of those days when New Orleans gets a hard rain for six hours, the building floods, and I am nearly as confident we’ll put a for sale sign in the yard and watch the whole thing go condo.
Everything is changing in American religious life. It isn’t all changing at the same pace or in the same ways, but the institutions we knew and loved (the very ones that formed and shaped and sent us) are changing forever. And y ds, are called to work and serve and love for this season of transformation.
Dr. Phyllis Rodgerson Pleasants spoke over and over and over and over and overagain of paradigm shifts. We wrote the papers. We studied the tome. We knew conceptually that the paradigm was shifting. Dr. Phyllis Tickle made famous the image of the church’s rummage sale every 500 years, and we preachers have found some comfort in bringing that image out every now and then to remind ourselves and each other that what we are experiencing has happened before and will happen again; church is bigger than our collective memory. Paradigms shift. Rummage sales are necessary… We creatures don’t like change. We don’t enjoy paradigm shifts. And we don’t particularly enjoy rummage sales.
In this rummage sale, we’re releasing that which no longer serves in order to make room for what comes next. That sounds nice and hopeful and promising. But if you’ve been through the process of cleaning out your childhood home and deciding who gets the love letters in a box found in the attic, who gets the beloved Christmas ornaments, what to do with your mother’s 75 church hats, who will deal with your father’s hoarding problem made evident in the garage, and putting your sister-in-law in her place when she tries to put her name on the heirloom armoire, well, that’s decidedly more complicated. The life and work in 2019 is decidedly more complicated than it was 30 years ago.
The dear writer and woman of valor Rachel Held Evans reflected on this impulse we have in our church culture to win at doing church, saying, “I wonder if the role of the clergy in this age is not to dispense information or guard the prestige of their authority, but rather to go first, to volunteer the truth about their sins, their dreams, their failures, and their fears in order to free others to do the same. Such an approach may repel the masses looking for easy answers from flawless leaders, but I think it might make more disciples of Jesus, and I think it might make healthier, happier pastors. There is a difference, after all, between preaching success and preaching resurrection. Our path is the muddier one.
These words are true and they are good. We are in the midst of massive change as it relates to religious practice and attitudes towards faith. I don’t know what is coming next, but I do know that Jesus said not even “the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18) . The church may be different in the years to come but I trust Jesus to lead us into that new reality.