(A sermon prepared for delivery at Fleming Memorial Presbyterian Church on Sunday, Nov. 2, 2014)
Good morning, and thank you for the invitation to lead you and worship today. It’s been a while since I visited Fleming Memorial, and it’s good to return and see some old friends and, I hope, make some new ones.
I bring you greetings today from many of your Presbyterian brothers and sisters, first, from just up I-79 at First Presbyterian in Morgantown. You may have heard that our congregation is experiencing some transition, and indeed it is. But I’m glad to report to you that we are doing well and looking forward to the future. One of the reasons for that is the Harless Center, the realization of a long-time dream of the congregation to provide faith-based housing for West Virginia University students. But more about that later.
Also I bring you greetings from the Synod of the Trinity, where am honored to serve as one of two commissioners from the Presbytery of West Virginia. Unlike many of the 16 synods in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Synod of the Trinity is actually healthy and active. The Synod is about to celebrate its 300th birthday, and we fully anticipate that regardless of what happens with synods structurally throughout the denomination, the historic mission and work will continue in some form.
And, finally, I bring you greetings from the Westminster Foundation of West Virginia. For more than a century, the Westminster Foundation has been supporting campus ministry at state institutions in West Virginia. Today, we do that with two full-time pastors, one each at Marshall University and West Virginia University. We also support the campus ministries at West Liberty University, Shepherd University and here at Fairmont State University. At Shepherd’s that’s done through supporting the program operated by the Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church; at West Liberty and Fairmont State, we support the programs of the United Methodist Church. As with Harless Center, I’ll return to campus ministry later.
Over the years, one of the topics that’s fascinated me is leadership. What makes a good leader? What do good leaders do? Are they born? Are they made? What are a leader’s responsibilities? The list goes on.
And it seems to me that today – and with an election day two days away – the question of leadership is especially timely.
So listen to today’s scripture readings with all that bouncing in your head. And by the way, I do mean listen. Put down those pew Bibles. You can read it anytime; today, experience Scripture as was first intended, that is to be heard.
First, the Old Testament lesson, from Joshua 3:7-17:
The Lord said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses. You are the one who shall command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, ‘When you come to the edge of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan. ’” Joshua then said to the Israelites, “Draw near and hear the words of the Lord your God.” Joshua said, “By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites: the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is going to pass before you into the Jordan. So now select twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe. When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off; they shall stand in a single heap.”
When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the ark of the covenant were in front of the people. Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water, the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, while those flowing toward the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, were wholly cut off. Then the people crossed over opposite Jericho. While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.
Now, turning to Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
those he redeemed from trouble
and gathered in from the lands,
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.
Some wandered in desert wastes,
finding no way to an inhabited town;
hungry and thirsty,
their soul fainted within them.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress;
he led them by a straight way,
until they reached an inhabited town
He turns rivers into a desert,
springs of water into thirsty ground,
a fruitful land into a salty waste,
because of the wickedness of its inhabitants.
He turns a desert into pools of water,
a parched land into springs of water.
And there he lets the hungry live,
and they establish a town to live in;
they sow fields, and plant vineyards,
and get a fruitful yield.
And, finally, a Gospel reading from Matthew 23:1-12:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God.
Please, now, join me in prayer:
O Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of each and every one of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
One thing most folks find out about me, if they hang around me very long, is that I am Presbyterian, with a capital P. I have been my whole life, which is fairly unusual these days. Many of our members come to us from other faith traditions – or no faith.
I’m one of those cradle Presbyterians, but it’s not just habit that has kept be a Presbyterian into my 62nd year. You see, I really do believe that the way we approach God and faith is the best way. That’s probably not a fair conclusion since I’ve never really experienced another way for any length of time, but I can say, without a doubt, that I can’t imagine being comfortable anywhere else.
Being Presbyterian, with our history and tradition, our appreciation for education, our sense of duty, yes even our systematic theology, is so much a part of me that I’ve sometimes wondered whether I approach life the way I do BECAUSE of my Presbyterian upbringing, or if I’m just fortunate to have started out in the right place for me – kind of a nature/nurture question. I’m sure – as with most things – the answer is likely somewhere in between.
And part of being Presbyterian is one of leadership. If you look around, you’ll find Presbyterians in leadership positions. In politics alone, Presbyterians pop up in numbers that far surpass what would be expected from a group of fewer than 2 million folks.
In West Virginia for example, Both Senator Jay Rockefeller and Congressman Nick Rahall are Presbyterian. Also Shelly Moore Capito. (Both she and Rockefeller are members at First Church in Charleston; Congressman Rahall belongs to Beckley Presbyterian.) Overall, in the current Congress there are 31 Presbyterians in the House – 21 Republicans and 10 Democrats, and 13 in the Senate – eight Republicans and five Democrats.
This involvement in politics goes all the way back to the beginnings in Geneva. John Calvin ran the city, not just the church. John Knox, our Scottish founding father, battled the monarchy. And on this side of the pond, you may know that only one clergyman signed the Declaration of Independence – Presbyterian John Witherspoon. Presbyterians were so active in the Revolution some have dubbed it “the Presbyterian rebellion.”
All this co-exists, however, with a firm belief in separation of church and state. While our faith guides our decisions, we do not try – at least generally – to insist that ours is the only way.
You’re probably asking yourself about now what all this has to do with today’s scripture.
This is what is has to do: On this All Saints Sunday, when we honor all the saints who have come before us, it’s important to remember that you and I stand in a long line of people of faith who have understood and taken on the responsibility to be leaders in their community.
But listen again to the words of Jesus about the leaders he was faced with:
The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.
You know what I thought of when I read this?
I thought of leaders who proclaim the United States to be a Christian nation, but then support putting walls around this country to keep out sick people, or children looking for a better life.
I thought of leaders who claim to be Christian, but pour astronomically more money into guns than butter.
I thought that too many of our leaders today resemble the leaders Jesus talked about.
But it’s not only on the big stage: I thought of supervisors in the workplace who think leadership means a heavy-handed, do-what-I-tell-you approach instead of a supportive, give-me-your-best one.
I challenge you, then, to seriously think about what it means to practice your faith as a leader – and whether we realize it or not, we are all leaders in one form or another.
How do we do that? First, I think we be constantly mindful that at it’s core Christianity is a faith of love. We love a God who has provided a world for us, and who never walks away from us, no matter how mightily we deserve it. We follow a Christ who ate with outcasts, who surrounded himself with sinners, who preached a kingdom of love and caring for everything around him.
And we support others – whether in politics or in the workplace or in our organizations – who reflect those same values. In other words, we serve.
And, one more thing, we take seriously an obligation to model for others that our faith affects every thing we do every day.
That’s one of the reasons, for example, that I agreed to accept the invitation to serve on the Westminster Foundation of West Virginia and am currently humbled to serve as its president. The thing I think is so important about campus ministry is not the, frankly misguided, notion that campus pastors should somehow be recruiters for congregations down the road.
No, campus ministry is about MINISTRY. It’s about being there to help young people make their way through the challenges of being 18, 19 and 20 years and being on their own for maybe the first time, of being exposed to a new world of ideas – many of them probably challenging what they’ve thought their entire life.
It’s also about helping those young people figure out how they might incorporate this faith thing into their own every day life.
As I mentioned at the beginning, for more than a hundred years, the Westminster Foundation of West Virginia has been providing campus ministry on state-supported institutions in West Virginia.
At West Virginia University and at Marshall, we do that through full-time pastors in both places, where we have been fortunate to have significant stability. Charlie Spring and Bob Bondurant both served at WVU and Marshall respectively for more than 20 years each. Bob was followed at Marshall by the Rev. Dana Sutton, who was there until this past summer, serving 10 years; the Rev. Dr. Shelly Barrick Parsons has been at WVU for 10 years and continues to serve.
At Shepherd University, we support the Connections program at Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church.
Here in Fairmont, as at West Liberty, we work with the United Methodists.
The work of these ministries is extremely important, and at every meeting it’s heartening to hear the stories from the campuses. One of those stories is the ministry here at Fairmont State, where more than 120 students come to Wesley House each Wednesday during the academic year for free food and fellowship. I asked the Rev. Maria Wilbin, who is the campus pastor, if they cam for the food or the fellowship. Both, she said, nothing that many remain after the food is long gone to talk about the issues of faith with each other.
I can’t let the moment pass with out a pitch that Fleming Memorial could join with the Foundation to make a difference with the students at Fairmont State. Knowing how much we Presbyterians love our food, an easy way to do that would be to provide an occasional lunch. Maria would welcome another congregation to join the rotation.
Meanwhile there a pretty exciting thing going on at WVU that fits right into the need to show and build leadership.
Some seven years ago, First Morgantown saw an opportunity to provide faith-based housing for students. Although it’s been through many ideas and plans, Harless Center at Central Place is becoming a reality and will be open next spring. While a private developer is building the housing – called Central Place – Harless Center will be operated by a separate board of directors, that includes representatives from the church, the Westminster Foundation and the community. The center is named for Buck Harless, one of the most generous philanthropists this state has seen. And a Presbyterian. Buck believed so much in what we are hoping to do at Harless Center that he provided a significant gift and then, against the wishes of his staff, came to our groundbreaking a year ago. It was the last public event he attended before his death earlier this year.
We also recently received a grant from the Lily Foundation that will help us provide programs that we hope will in turn help the students figure out what it means to be a person of faith.
There is a lot of work to be done yet, and you can help get that work done. There are several ways to do that, but first, we covet your prayers. Next would be sending us your students: if you know of any sophomores or other upperclassmen looking for a place to stay, send ’em our way.
So there are plenty of opportunities to show our leadership through campus ministry. But even if that’s not your style, look for ways to be more like the leaders of early Israel, leaders who were willing to step off into a raging stream to lead their people where God had directed them, and to stay after the people had passed by to insure they would reach the other side safely.
To God alone be the glory.
Please join me in prayer: God and gracious God, you call us to be leaders, leaders and role models, to love justice and kindness, to walk humbly. Help us to see those opportunities and not to be like the leaders that drew Jesus’ rebuke. In the name of Jesus the Christ. Amen.