by Ellen Sims
I Thessalonians 2:9-20, Matthew 23:1-12
Imagine how it would feel if someone you revere said to you what Paul said to the members of the church he planted at Thessalonica: “I’m longing with great eagerness to see you face to face. You are my hope and joy and crown. Yes, you are my glory and joy!”
Long before the Church officially canonized the Apostle Paul, he was already a saint, a spiritual role model, to the sisters and brothers in the faith. Initially the Church canonized Christian martyrs and then especially exemplary Christians so others could pattern their lives after those individuals. But hidden in this passage from 1st Thessalonians is a reference to a different kind of saint. Paul said (v. 14) that the Thessalonian Christians had become imitators of the Judean CHURCHES. The Judean churches were something like a collective saint the Thessalonians could look up to and model themselves after.
Our annual celebration of All Saints’ Day gives us a chance to recall individual saints of old as well as the everyday saints you and I have known and can hold up as models for the life of faith. But today’s Epistle reading suggests that a faith community can serve the function of saint. An entire church can have a holy influence shaping us into spiritual maturity. Of course, the United Church of Christ continues to leave its progressive and inclusive mark on us. And each one of you is influencing the life of our young congregation. But as your pastor and church planter, I have been part of congregations that have profoundly shaped my ministry and, therefore, Open Table.
I wish I had time to pay tribute to the admirable United Church of Granville, Ohio. But I’ll limit my story today to Glendale Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, where our daughter and her husband and baby daughter still worship. Many of us could offer examples of churches that have taught us what NOT to be and do. But I’ll share how one particular church has not only been a shining example of the church of Jesus but has also, despite marked differences from us, passed along to Open Table some spiritual DNA. In addition, they contributed a very tangible, unsolicited, and crucial $1000 donation to Open Table just as we were getting started.
George and I joined Glendale Baptist Church shortly after we moved to Nashville in 1986 with our baby daughter. We visited because other faculty at Belmont University were members there and invited us. (That’s how the vast majority of people find a new church home, by the way!) Glendale was unlike any Baptist church we’d known: cerebral, heretical, funny, but serious about social justice and welcoming everyone. I’ll get to the serious part. But what struck me first was their joyful irreverence which both (slightly) disturbed and delighted me. When my mother first visited Glendale one Sunday shortly after we moved to Nashville, the first thing she noticed was that no one brought their Bibles to church. When she visited one of the adult Sunday school classes with me—a group reading and discussing novels by Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy—she wondered why a Southern lit class was billed as a Sunday school class. When the Sunday school teacher (an English professor at Belmont) told the class as we gathered that her 6-year-old had decided that week he hated school, she joked morosely: “I’d rather he had said he hated Jesus than he hated school.” My mother probably never got over that remark.
At that time Glendale had jettisoned biblical literalism—but many hadn’t yet learned another way of reading and appreciating scripture. The church focused on how to treat others rather than what to believe. When we first joined their ranks, the pastor was Richard Smith, whose ready laugh and warm hugs drew people, especially the children, to him for yet another dose of affirmation and kindness. But not everyone admired Richard and his congregation. While Richard was pastor, Glendale had nearly been kicked out of their Baptist association over ordaining female deacons and then drew fire for ordaining women to pastoral ministry. See more about the early history through Richard’s tenure here.
The straw that broke the Baptist camel’s back and for which Glendale was eventually “disfellowshipped” was the calling of an openly lesbian clergywoman to become, initially, the associate pastor. But before that happened, Richard Smith’s successor, Mark Caldwell, paved the way by helping Glendalers synch their social protests and general iconoclasm to a more intentionally constructive theology and praxis.
Glendale called Mark as pastor after Richard retired–just a year or so after George and I joined. It’s a wonder Mark stayed with us beyond his first Sunday—which fell on April 1st of that year. The chief jokers couldn’t let April Fools’ Day pass without preparing for Mark a baptism by jokes. Some pranksters erected a large “For Sale” sign in front of the church to puzzle Mark as he arrived. Someone else had placed vodka in the water glass customarily placed on the pulpit for the preacher to sip. Those in on that joke admired Mark’s ability to take that first drink without betraying shock and then, after a pause, take another sip for dramatic effect. Someone else had created placards for each choir member to hold up at the end of worship to reveal the choir’s scoring of the sermon. On each choir member’s Olympic-type score card was printed a number, mainly in 9.2 to 10.0 range—but with a few in the lower ranges and one card just said, randomly, “See Rock City.” At the service’s close, the church council moderator stood to interpret the scores to Mark, congratulating him on scoring high enough, though just barely, to qualify for his new preaching role.
You must think I’m describing and lauding a very silly congregation. It was actually a courageous congregation that included many employees of the Southern Baptist denomination in the city where the SBC was headquartered at a time when the fundamentalist takeover was in full and fiery swing. More than a dozen people in our church lost jobs they’d held for years because they were suddenly too liberal. They included writers and editors of Sunday school curricula who would not put a fundamentalist spin on scriptures. They and their fellow church members used humor, as many on the margins do, to keep their sanity and to fight against the bullies.
Glendalers were also seriously engaged in working for social justice. Some, for instance, were ministering to men and women, mainly men, dying of AIDS. Others were supporting the creation of Nashville’s Room in the Inn, a program similar to Family Promise. Levity and playfulness gave Glendalers an outlet for their outrage at injustice. Many in the church were reading feminist theology written by feminist theologians just down the road at Vanderbilt–and they got most of us railing against patriarchy and retraining ourselves to use gender inclusive language. God was not just male, we believed. God was female, too. And more. Selecting a new inclusive-language hymnal under the leadership of Diane Oliver was a proud accomplishment from that period.
One way we gave expression to our joy and outrage was through worship that ministered to our minds and spirits. Beautiful services honored the deep hurts of our lives and celebrated our joys. Our minister of music, Margie Halbert, and pianist/worship planner Karen Turner taught me that a worship service needs flow, coherence, focus, variety, engagement, delight, tension, release. It needs to carefully planned—but have a little room for spontaneity. It should allow the expected and the unexpected. Like some other “liberal” Baptists, we had begun using formal liturgy seasoned with our homemade liturgical art from a congregation that included professional musicians, artists, writers, dancers, and actors. We united around a beautiful church covenant we’d hammered out and would often read in worship services, and we took as our theological starting point that being church didn’t mean, as some Baptists around us seemed to think, hating on others.
Very early in our membership at Glendale, Mark Caldwell matter-of-factly created a Wednesday evening Bible study series about homosexuality. At that time the topic seemed to me to have arisen out of the blue. I knew we had a few gay and lesbian members at church even in leadership roles—but we had never discussed that hot topic openly. It was sort of a “live and let live” attitude. I suspect many Glendalers felt, as I did back then, that the Bible deemed that conduct sinful, but that was between those folks and God and was none of my business. The “What the Bible Says about Homosexuality” study proved pivotal for me, even though it would take years for me gradually—through deepening relationships with LGBTQ friends and reading further and just living life—to become personally not just tolerant of and comfortable with LGBTQ persons but genuinely AFFIRMING. But the Bible study Mark led sent me down that path as he carefully demonstrated that the “clobber passages” used to condemn homosexuality had been misread and needed to be understood in the context of that culture and of the larger sweep of scripture. That Bible study series did another thing for me. It was the first time I’d seen detailed biblical exegesis in action. I began to realize that the Bible was sacred not because God had audibly dictated each word to the biblical authors — and not because the Bible was infallible — but because for centuries and centuries people of faith had experienced powerful truth in the pages of scripture. To read scripture critically with the aid of good scholarship and in the company of other earnest seekers is a way to honor scripture.
On a more personal level, Glendale told our daughter she was beloved. Our church helped George and me teach Georgia to trust the love of God, honor the equality of all persons before God, follow her sense of God’s call on her life, and participate with empowerment in the life of the church and the world beyond. At her church, even as a toddler, Georgia worked alongside us to help house Nashville’s homeless and feed Nashville’s hungry. There she was baptized, there she often served as a worship leader, and there she saw women leading in significant ways. There our daughter watched earnest, respectful Christians discuss homosexuality and, just as Georgia was graduating from high school, she proudly participated in a church vote to call as our first associate pastor an extraordinary woman—who happens to be lesbian. April Baker continues to serve Glendale but since 2004 she has been the co-pastor, co-equal with another co-pastor, Amy Meers. These two women continue to articulate a progressive theology in their extraordinarily gifted preaching.
There’s still much I haven’t been able to share about Glendale. I don’t have time to tell you the story about the time a man, unknown to any of us, walked into the service completely naked and said he was told to bare all before the Lord. Nor do I have ways to express how I mourned the loss of this passionate, caring, strongly lay-led congregation after George and I moved to Ohio.
But I honestly had and have no desire to “imitate” Glendale by cloning a new Glendale here in Mobile—even if it were possible. For one thing, Glendale has had its own challenges, like all churches, so it’s not perfect. I have learned from many other congregations, the good and bad. I continue learning new ways of being church. Our context in this location and time is very different—as are we as individuals. YOU are every day coloring what Open Table is and becomes. But there are aspects of Glendale that I think have shaped my vision of church and for which I’m grateful.
I’m wondering if you see any similarities between the church I’ve just described – and the church that is gathered in this space right now. Would anyone like to name some of those similarities? Are there qualities that my story brings to mind that you wish we could cultivate here? (And let me underscore I’m not encouraging pranks on the pastor!)
PRAYER: Creating God, as we continue to create with you this new church, give us a vision for what is needed in this place and time. And then give us the will and the ways to implement that vision. May we become a community of saints that others will hope to emulate. Amen