r m p







Such a Time as This


OT: 1 Samuel 15:24-31

NT: 2 Corinthians 3:1-6

Text: Luke 12:51-56


Unlike Jesus' interlocutors in this text we in this church have no problem interpreting the present time. It is a time of transition. There is no confusion at that point. The moment at which we are poised today is what Paul Tillich called a kairos. This is one of the Greek words for "time" used in the New Testament. Another is the more familiar chronos. It means, as you might guess from the derivative word "chronology," the time of duration. Like Old Man River, chronological time "just keeps movin' along." By contrast, kairos denotes "the fullness of time," an opportune or decisive moment, a moment of arrival at a crossroads. And, my friends, we are there.

The selling of the building, the search for a new congregational home: these things make it obvious that we stand in the flickering nexus of kairos. And we are feeling the anxiety of the time of transition. It is what anthropologist Victor Turner calls a period of liminality, a time of testing, in the wilderness outside familiar categories.

It brings great anxiety because everything you took your bearings by has come undone. And yet growth comes only by passing through these transitions. The anxieties should be seen as birth pangs from which the newness of the future will be born.

This is a word of comfort. Now a word of challenge. For this time is even more of a kairos than most of you knew. Certainly more than I myself knew till two weeks ago. At that time I received word that six members of the Coordinating Council had decided that in a year or so they would begin to look for new pastoral leadership for this church.

I was alarmed, obviously, but even more perplexed. For, as their complaints were described to me, I felt sure they were ridding themselves of some other pastor than me. They seemed a caricature in which I could not recognize myself.

I was told that people see me as unapproachable, that I lack empathy and pastoral charisma. In six pairs of eyes, I suppose I must. But apparently not in the eyes of the people I spend many hours counseling. They include our own parishioners, as well as Human Needs clients, street people, students, members of other churches. I listen to what they have to confide about their adulterous affairs and abusive husbands, their fear of going to jail, their pressures at work, their career plans (and failures), their thoughts of suicide, their struggles to stay off drugs, or to get their spouse off drugs.

I'm sorry if any of you find me distant or aloof, but I'm also surprised. I perceive myself to be a man of good humor. I'm always genuinely happy to see and talk with every one of you. At this complaint I thought of Paul's words, "O Corinthians, our heart is open; open your hearts to us."

Some felt I lack pastoral skills. If so, it seems not to have stopped me from being at the side of my parishioners in the hospital or the sanitarium, in nursing homes and sickbeds, in clinics and in criminal court; going with others to apply for work permits and political asylum, welcoming battered women to take shelter in our home, taking parishioners to the doctor, phoning up landlords, lawyers, therapists, marriage counselors and advocates for the retarded; driving people to the homeless shelter, or simply running errands and giving rides. As Paul said, such a catalogue is gauche, and one prefers not to have to rehearse it: "I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness," he says, "Do bear with me! I feel a divine jealousy for you."

Some faulted me for not getting involved in Christian Education. My proposal to revamp the Sunday School with the Philosophy for Children method was ignored then and is obviously forgotten now. But I will shortly unveil a new plan for youth work and Sunday School curricula that Carol and I have drafted.

Some saw me as passive, uninvolved in the process of moving out of this building. Most of you could not be here during the packing day because you had other, preemptive work at the office. So did I, though it happens that my office is in this building. I'm sorry if seeing me at my desk that day offended you.  

Have I shown no concern for the choice of a new location for the church? Early on I asked to be involved in the process but was rebuffed--there's no other word for it. I've been shocked to find myself twice rebuked publicly for daring to visit new locations on my own. Now let's see: is that too little interest or too much? "O Israel, how long will you go on limping between two opinions?"

Are my sermons "too intellectual," too academic? In fact, in my sermons I dare not exegete the biblical text in any real detail. That would be welcome in a real Baptist church, but I've always  felt you would be impatient with it.

On the other hand, perhaps the concern is that I deal only with theory and speculation. On the contrary, I have been scrupulous to aim even my Deconstructionist sermons at some spiritual or moral application. I preach on issues of personal motivation, moral responsibility, spiritual self-knowledge. They're all on tape, if you've forgotten.

I suspect the real issue here is that some want to hear more traditional phrases from me about Jesus and the Bible. Of course I preach from the Bible virtually every Sunday morning. But I freely admit I am no longer Christocentric. Neither was Jesus! It was he who warned, "Whoever believes in me, believes not in me, but in him who sent me." It was he who warned his contemporaries not to blaspheme the Spirit of Truth by refusing to recognize it in new voices. I recognize it in the voices of the Buddha, of Nietzsche, of Jacques Derrida. Surely no one expects me or this church to retreat into the dark cave of biblicism and pietism.

But most astonishing of all is the complaint that I've erred in extending my ministry beyond the bounds of the gathered church: for instance, in a new ecumenical, multicultural ministry with Muslims and Jews, in launching a journal of biblical criticism, in hosting Heretics Anonymous. Do you really want the church to retreat into a cozy cocoon? 

There are hundreds of thousands of ordinary, conventional churches already. How many are there like ours, where the doubter, the thinker, the bohemian is welcome? Is there not to be even a single haven for them? What is the urgency about plucking up this tender plant to replace it with one more cabbage when there is already a field full of them?

Besides bringing greater attention to our church, making it a city set on a hill, my activities stem from the belief, given birth here by Dr. Fosdick and renewed by Don Morris, that ours is a gospel which engages our culture on every level, that it has something to say to modern men and women in a world come of age. If the church has really lost this vision, if it has grown tired of bearing that burden, then I mourn its spiritual death. But I do not believe it.

Ministries like mine tend to create a larger church of people who may not attend worship on Sunday morning. Some take a dim view of these people as barnacles on the hull with whom I should not waste my time. "Where is the return?" they say. "These people don't join the Trustee Board or contribute to plate and offering." Wait just a minute: let's try not to confuse ministry with fund raising! Would you make the same complaint about our Human Needs clients? And yet the Film Series and Heretics Anonymous are ministering to human needs, too. There was a time when more of you remembered that. You may have grown more mature and more conventional, but these endeavors are not childish things to be put away.

I wish more of the people attracted to my ministry would assume a share of the burden in the church. But some have: Havis and Liza, Tony and Rochelle, Kate, Jerry, Martha, Lisa, Tsahay, Bertukan, Scarlet Fucetola, Rich Griese. And I can think of some instances where the eager contributions of new members were rebuffed with skepticism and impatience. They left the church in understandable disgust.

And do we even need all these committees you're so desperate to fill? Our bureaucracy is bigger than our membership, and not because the membership is too small, but because the structure is too big. I don't believe we need as many cooks stirring the stew as we have. There needn't be as huge a burden as some seem to think, especially without this building. Future moderators and Trustees won't have the epic labors that Wayne, Linda, Bonnie, Rey and the others have so heroically performed. I will share with you my plan for reorganizing the committee structure in a couple of weeks.

But I admit it: despite my best efforts over five years, the membership has not grown much. There's a steady trickle of new recruits, but attrition keeps us pretty much even. How serious a problem that is depends on how much bigger you want the church to be. I will in the next weeks be outlining new growth strategies. But I'm no Reverend Ireland; I can't guarantee my new plans will work any better than the old ones did.

Some feel dismissing me would be doing me a favor; it would free me to pursue teaching as my true love. Personally, I can't drive a wedge between ministry and scholarship. And I dearly love the pastoral ministry. Let me remind you, I had a full-time teaching position and left it to come to this church. I knew it was an opportunity for creative ministry I simply could not let pass.

And if I were dismissed from this church, I would only go on to seek another--start another if need be. A church committed, as this one was when I joined it 13 years ago, to the vision of uncompromising intellectual honesty, spiritual openness, and adventurous ministry.

If the church has really changed so much, if most of you share the discontent of half the Coordinating Council, then of course I would resign. Why impose myself on you? But on the other hand, if I resigned at the behest of six people, I fear I might be imposing the will of a minority on the whole congregation.

I would have spared you this embarrassing spectacle. Even more, I would have spared you the headache of yet another wrenching decision, especially at such an already sensitive time. But that choice was taken out of my hands two weeks ago. And now I hope you as a congregation will take the decision of changing pastors at least as seriously as you took changing buildings. In a church where a congregational vote is needed to sell a rug, I hope I may be accorded the same consideration.

But the real issue before you is the direction, even the nature, of this church and this ministry. And that must be the considered decision of the whole congregation. I wish for you God's wisdom. Thank you.


                                                  Robert M. Price




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