Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 66:1-6) transports me to the Winston-Salem Convention Center in early November, 1992, when the Baptist State Convention of NC was holding its annual meeting. It turned out to be a testy, and ultimately historic meeting, as two member churches of our fellowship, Pullen Baptist in Raleigh and Olin T. Binkley Memorial Baptist of Chapel Hill, were disfellowshipped, aka given the boot. The back story involves these two churches, in their autonomy, deciding in one case to ordain a gay man, and in the other case to perform a wedding for a gay couple. The convention responded by introducing an amendment to the body’s constitution and bylaws. The proposal read, No funds of any kind, designated or undesignated, shall be accepted by this convention, its programs, institutions, or agencies, from any church which knowingly takes, or has taken, any official action which manifests public approval, promotion or blessing of homosexuality. Any such church shall not qualify as a `cooperating church’ as defined in Article IV, A, 3 of the Constitution of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. After some heated and hateful discussion, a secret ballot vote was taken, and during the same business session, my friend George Reed said to me that he wished they would do the same thing with churches who had practiced racism. His comment was like a light bulb going off in my head. I immediately made my way to a microphone, where I proposed another amendment to the constitution. My proposal read exactly the same as the previous one, with one simple alteration: replacing the word homosexuality with racism. After some confused discussion, another secret ballot was taken, and in the next business session, the results were given. The first motion passed with 90% approval. The second motion failed, with only 40% voting in favor. The headlines in several of the states newspapers the next day read something like, NC Baptists Oppose Homosexuality, Favor Racism. No churches were to be found on the chopping block for knowingly taking, or having taken, any official action which manifests public approval, promotion, or blessing of racism. The convention was safe, as such a bylaw could have resulted in many of the virtually all-white churches being disfellowshipped.
The Prophet Isaiah must have had his own experience of a state convention, where people claiming to be protectors of the covenant and the word voted to expel some of the faithful. The text doesn’t give us the details or tell us what the issues at hand were. Whatever the faithful had done, they had provoked the ire and hatred of the majority. And the majority justified their hatred and revulsion, doing it all in God’s name, thinking they were somehow glorifying God by giving the abominable ones the boot. Isaiah’s proposal to the convention must have confused some of those listeners in the majority: Hear the word of the Lord, you who tremble at his word: “Your own people who hate you, and exclude you because of my name, have said, ‘Let the Lord be glorified, that we may see your joy!‘ Yet they will be put to shame. The ones who had done the expelling would be put to shame. The ones who thought they were glorifying God, protecting his Word, would be put to shame. When I look around and hear and see some of the angst coming out of the majority Baptist world today, the agonizing distress they express about the state of the world, I wonder if this is one of the manifestations of the shame promised by the prophet. It is shame in the sense of loss of esteem, loss of honor, based on foolish action. The majority Baptist folk are not a happy lot, as far as their communications go. They are a brooding, panic-stricken people, foreseeing a gloom and doom and end of the world with America leading the way to hell in its handbasket of sin, mostly sexual sin, with some economic socialism sin thrown in on the side.
On the other hand, some of the most joy-filled and free people I have been around in recent years have been folks like those in the Pullen and Binkley churches. Their disfellowshipping did not leave them bereft of the fellowship of the Spirit. I had the great blessing of leading the Binkley folks in an annual church retreat a few years ago, and it was one of the most inspiring and fun weekends I’ve had in my life. Seeing Bob Bratcher, the translator of the Good News Bible, read passages from that Bible to a group of children, and then having them lead him in an interpretation of the text with Tinker Toys, was priceless. And then, just a few weeks ago, I had the great blessing of spending an afternoon with a group of about 20 teenagers from Pullen. They had been to Cuba earlier in the summer, and were saying goodbye to two of their Cuban hosts who were there visiting them. I have never in my life been around a more spirit-filled and enthusiastic group of teenage Christians, as they sang and cried and hugged and danced through the airport, giving Wanda and Orestes quite the send-off. I don’t really know what life is like on a daily basis among the majority Christians who are anxiously guarding the faith and expelling folks in the name of God. I’m past wanting to know. I’m happy being counted among the non-anxious, free crowd of the expelled.
How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.