The following is a transcript of the sermon of Bishop Rob Wright at Ebenezer Baptist Church on March 20 for their 136th Anniversary.
Greetings to you in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ. And I bring greetings also from your brothers and sisters in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta: 117 worshipping communities planted in 75 1/2 counties in middle and north Georgia; 56 thousand men, women, children, teenagers, and feisty seniors.
It really is an honor to be here with you on the occasion of your 136th Anniversary. And, a double honor to be invited to preach at this historic and important pulpit. It’s good to be with my brother, your Senior Pastor, the distinguished Rev. Gentleman from Georgia. We enjoy the fellowship reserved for clergy, fathers, HBCU graduates, and children born in public housing to praying parents. Every Episcopal Bishop needs a friend who is a Baptist Pastor and every Baptist Pastor needs a friend who is an Episcopal Bishop!
Let me also take a moment here to acknowledge and thank the men and women whom we love but see no longer. Those who now live with the Lord and who watch over us and pray for us from heaven’s balcony. Thank God we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses without whom a celebration like today’s would not be possible. Thank God for the original thirteen founding members of this church and their founding pastor. Because they were, we are. Because they did, we can. Amen!
My biblical text for our celebration this morning is Luke 4:16-20. It is Jesus’ homecoming and his outgoing: “When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Based on that piece of scripture, I want to preach from the topic: “Looking back to go forward.” The celebration of any anniversary is built on looking back. The world does this, churches do this and individuals do this. We look back to see where we’ve been and what we have come through. When we look back, we take stock, sometimes cringe, weep with joy, gain clarity, and celebrate resilience. I want to talk about looking back in the church this morning, because, even as I speak, states all over the country are passing laws to make it illegal to look back at our complicated American family story. Nevertheless, soul singers tell us we ought to look back sometimes. Teddy Pendergast famously used to sing, “…looking back over my years I guess I shedded some tears.” Diana Ross and the Supremes used to sing, “through the mirror of my mind, time after time, I see reflections of you and me. reflections of the way life used to be.” Sister Aretha Franklin brought the idea back to the church when she sang, “How I got over, How I got over. You know my soul looks back and wonders how I got over.”
What aids us in our looking back is that each of us carries with us a spiritual photo album. It’s in this album that we keep the memories of our moments with God. High and low moments. Defining moments. The real blessing of this spiritual photo album is that it’s the place where we store up examples of the ways in which, God has been real, able, good, and generous to us. In God’s grand design of us, God made us to be more than a repository of what God has already done. Our memories don’t live on an isolated island in our consciousness. Somehow in the genius of God, our memories are connected to our imaginations. Which means we can look back to God to go forward with God.
That’s what’s happening in the 4th chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Jesus is fresh from the wilderness. Fresh from social distancing. And now he re-enters his home town. And I imagine that his re-entry prompted some precious memories. You know he saw familiar faces and places. He probably saw where he went to school, maybe even some of his former instructors. Being a carpenter, he probably saw some structures he built or helped to build with his Dad. His first move upon coming home, scripture tells us, is to return to his community of faith- his worshipping community. That place where he was born and raised, known and loved. Before he went forward he had to look back.
And on that day, he not only showed up, he pitched in. He participated in worship. He stood up to read the 61st chapter of Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me…,” is what he recited. Jesus understood and so must we, that this thing we call the church was first and foremost born in the imagination of God. It was spirit conceived and spirit authorized. It was God’s idea and therefore it enjoys God’s favor. God dreamed of placing pockets of people in the earth like a little yeast in a mound of dough. A people who love God not only with their lips but in their lives. A people committed to Jesus’ ever-widening friend-making campaign. St. Paul would later describe the church as, “citizens of heaven.” Bishop Will Willimon would call us a “colony of heaven.”
St. Paul is saying to us here and now, I don’t care what your passport says, your primary citizenship is in heaven and your secondary citizenship is on the earth. Which means I am not an American follower of Jesus. I am a follower of Jesus that happens to be an American. In case nobody ever looked you in your face and told you who you are and whose you are let me be the first. You were shot into this present age by an all-wise God. There’s nothing accidental about you. Therefore, there’s nothing arbitrary about this gathering. We are here at God’s invitation. And we are sustained by the inexhaustible power of a power-sharing God. When we have had a vision, it was because a faithful God revealed a vision to us. Our distinctiveness as an organization comes from the fact that we are related to a unique God with an Excellent name, who cannot be bought off, delayed, or outdone. We have been set apart to be ambassadors of this loving and living God right now!!! What a high privilege! Wherever you find yourself, -no matter the resistance and no matter the breaking news, that is who you are and that is who we are. All of this gets exponentially multiplied when we get together. I heard a man say the other day that, “the most revolutionary thing that the church can do right now, in the face of a pandemic, and racial reckoning and in response to war and rumors of war is to be the church of God’s imagination. No gimmicks required.” Jesus went back to look forward.
And what does the church of God’s imagining look like? I’m so glad you asked! It’s right there in the text. Looking back to God should result in enterprise, not simply nostalgia. There’s a reason why the windshield is larger than the rearview mirror in your car. At important inflection points in our lives and even church anniversaries it’s essential to go back like Jesus did so we can know how to go forward for God. What does the prophet say and what does Jesus reclaim? He says, anamnesis, which is remembering, must result in kenosis, which is the pouring out of yourself. He says that the adoration of God should result in the oblation for God. He says that any glory we experience in worship-any anointing by the Holy Spirit we enjoy- must turn that glory into grind. There is a direct relationship between the heights of worship of God on Sunday and the lengths you will go for God on Monday. What happens when you and I look back to God is the transfer of energy, to be and to do. In another place, Isaiah said, “I saw the Lord high and lifted up…,” and that beautiful moment in his life climaxes with Isaiah saying, Lord, I’m not perfect, and my people aren’t perfect, but “Here I am Lord send me.” Jesus lived a sent life. When Jesus goes back to Isaiah he gets a purpose for today and tomorrow and so must we, and that perennial purpose is: to bring good news to people who regularly get bad news; To love freedom so much that we want freedom even for captives; To see God so clearly that we endeavor to eradicate all blindness. And because we know that every human being is made in the image of God and has dignity, value, and worth, we refuse to tolerate the oppression of any member of the human family.
Now I know what you’re thinking right now. You’re thinking does this fool know where he is? Does he know this is The Ebenezer Church? And the answer is yes, I know where I’m at! I know I’m at a church who has lived these tenets out and marvelously so over 136 years. Yes, I know that you have been and continue to be a great lighthouse of morality in this nation and beyond. Of course, I know. And still, to those who much has been given, still much is required. I am emboldened to say this to the church near and far because just look at the news: Tyrants are real, both foreign and domestic. The poor of every color are still catching hell. The incarcerated are out of sight and out of mind for so many. Heartbreak is on the rise. Too many of our teens wonder out loud is life worth living. And, people are still confusing narcissism with patriotism. Add to that, that in a recent study, we’re told that confidence in the church is at an all-time low. And that fewer people go to church now in our country than ever before. And yet for the people of God, the mourning and weeping of these facts must stay in a creative tension with faithfulness and progress. Now is not the time for despair. Even in that same study, there is hope. It went on to say that despite the aforementioned facts, ironically more than 80% of the people polled still said that there is something about this Jesus. Even those who don’t attend church still find him enigmatic and inspirational.
Jesus a genius! Jesus knew that you have to look back to go forward. But you also have to walk it like you talk it. The world is still watching the church and the only future for the church is to close the distance between itself and its pioneer and perfecter. The world is still hungry. Maybe Jesus was listening to the O’Jays that day and heard them sing, “Got to give the people, give the people, what they want!” That’s what that survey says. Just like those ancient greek’s request memorialized in the 12th chapter of John’s gospel, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” The world still knows Jesus is a real one. So take heart. They know that he is real by what he did. Jesus didn’t simply share a biblical passage that day. Or give an inspired reading, Jesus read the scroll, paused and said it is “fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s what you and I are saying when we say amen. We are saying that our mind and behind are coming into line. And when your mind and behind are in line, there is peace because you are willing and accomplishing one thing. He said “fulfilled.” He didn’t say I got a spiritual feeling. Fulfilled is, I am pleased to co-create with you God. Which is, I find my contentment in serving you above all others God. It means increasing your celebrity in the world, with the gifts you have given me Lord, satisfies my soul. It means I want to get something actually accomplished for you Lord. It means you understand the old hymn, there is power, power, wonder-working power in the blood of Jesus. Power to plant and to pluck up!
In an ancient prayer attributed to St. Francis the church prays, “Lord make me an instrument of your peace, where there is hatred let me sow love, where there is injury, pardon where there is doubt faith, where there is despair hope…” and it goes on from there. But let me call to your attention to something St. Francis said in that beautiful prayer, he said Lord make me….” And what I am saying to you this morning is Jesus never prayed to God to make me do anything. And since we are his followers neither should that be our prayer. When Jesus says it is “fulfilled in your hearing” he’s saying, I am pleased to partner with you God. He’s saying, I am my truest self when I serve you. He is saying I was created for this commission. He is saying, buildings are nice and even a blessing, but when you imagined a church God-when you sent me forward-you imagined a people whose deep joy was to make you known, especially in the finger-nail dirty places of the world. Jesus is saying you don’t have to make me do anything, God. I come alongside your purposes of my own free will. That is the height of spiritual maturity. That is the highest form of worship. I like the way you say that here at The Ebenezer Church, You say that you exist for “individual growth and social transformation.”
Let me close by sharing my own looking back and going forward with you. Some years ago, I asked Senator Warnock to allow me to gather all of the lay leaders and ministers under my authority in your historic heritage sanctuary. And though that took some doing he made it happen. It’s good to have friends in high places! And so we gathered there to renew our baptismal vows and for those who were ordained, we renewed our ordination vows. And to be honest, it was an ordinary worship service. An ordinary gathering of ordinary people led by a very ordinary bishop. And may I say, with all due respect, I looked around there and I saw ordinary architecture and ordinary-looking pews. And I looked down and I saw an ordinary-looking carpet. The pulpit though historic, was also ordinary. And yet America was changed from that place. Even the world was changed from that ordinary place. And it occurred to me in that moment, like never before, that the ordinary person worshipping at the ordinary church, sitting in the ordinary pew, in an ordinary town or city, by the grace of an extraordinary God is still the hope of the world! If a little brown boy from Nazareth can change all eternity and a little brown boy from Atlanta can change a nation, what can God do now if you said yes to that same God this morning. That is the genius of God still at work in the world. Somehow through the foolishness of reading and preaching, we can look back and go forward. And with a simple yes to God again today, God can change a heart and a home; a city and a state, and yes even the world. I still believe. I still believe.
Happy Birthday, Ebenezer!