Last Sermon, W. Douglas Rae, May 1968

August 23, 2013

This is the text of Dr. Rae’s last sermon at the First Baptist Church of Bloomington, IN, as reproduced in the booklet of his memorial service in July, 1968.   You can find some photographs of the church at http://firstuc.org.

This is a long document, so you may wish to save it or print it to read off-screen.  I thank you for your indulgence as I share some of the philosophies which have shaped my views.

Call to Commitment

Dr. W. Douglas Rae, Sunday, May 26, 1968.

A week ago we were in New York City with our Christian Faith and Life senior group of high school young people.  We saw a great many things, went a great many places, including Coney Island.  The day we went to Coney Island was a drizzly day and a very cold day.  Nobody was in the water.  There were some men fishing on the pier, but it was a drizzly, damp, cold morning.  And we aw a man, and old walrus or a turtle of a man.  He must have been sixty years of age, and he had all the signs of the old man.  He was short and roly-poly, and came out of the bathhouse barefooted, with a pair of trunks on.  He deliberately put one foot ahead of the other, didn’t turn his head right or left, didn’t look back, looked at the sand, walked diagonally across the boardwalk, which was approximately 130 or 150 feet to the stairway, and then started what was probably about a 1000-foot walk across the sand to the water’s edge–absolutely deliberate, no turning–and everybody on the boardwalk and on the pier was looking at this man walking into that ice cold ocean, wondering whether he would do it or not.  He kept walking, came to the edge of the water, walked in over his heead, turned around, and walked just as deliberately back up across the sand and into the bathhouse.  He didn’t speak to anyone, had nothing to say; but it was the most deliberate piece of acting that I have ever seen.  Now, whether he had been doing this all year around or not I don’t know, but at least he did it on this particular cold day.

And this morning I have a feeling that I am that old turtle, and that for the last three months we have been stripping down, throwing away all kinds of things at our house, getting ready for next Sunday, our last Sunday in the church, and I don’t know whether I can do it as deliberately as this old fellow did it.  The closer I get to the edge of the water the colder it is, and the more frightened I become, but I am walking as deliberately as I can walk.

The text this morning is from the Sermon on the Mount:

The rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew upon the house; and it fell not because it was founded upon a rock.

Now there is no such thing, as I have said to the official family of the church, as an indispensable man, or an indispensable minister.  This church, by the grace of God, has survived–I don’t know whether it is 30 or 40 ministers in a 143-year period; and it goes on.  Over the last 33 years, many strong, independent individuals have left this church; and the church has gone on.  We are now entering another period in the history of the church, and it is a testing period.  It’s not simply testing whatever foundation stones we’ve put down in this three-decade period.  It is testing the foundation stones of this church for 143 years.  It is testing the foundation stones of Christianity itself for almost 2000 years.  Whether or not we can survive–strongly–without too many people jumping off the ship, the period which is ahead of us, which may be six months, a year, or two years before we secure a new minister, is the test of the foundation stones of the church and the ministry of this church.

In the New Testament there are two word used for church.  One is “koinonia” and the other is “ecclesia.”  “Koinonia” suggests, at least most people who translate it think it suggests, fellowship, the fellowship of believers.  We are not really clear on what it means, but it points to a unique life, a community existence of men and women who have banded together under one name, with common value systems, with many differences of opinion, differences of personality, who have discovered in their coming together something that they cannot find alone.  To use the old illustration, there is some music which you can play on a violin by yourself–solo; and there is some music you cannot understand unless you play as part of an orchestra–a 100-piece orchestra.  And so there are some things you cannot understand unless you are a part of a family, and in the Christian community unless you are a part of a Christian community.

We think of individuals, in a one-to-one, person-to-person relationship.  Beyond the walls of the church there are things we can do which establish our Christian witness and our Christian convictions.  But we have not given up–despite all the prophecies of the death of the church–the need for community and the need for a locus, a place, that we return to to express our Christianity.  This community, this “koinonia,” is both local and universal.  It is both weak and powerful.  It is made up of saints and it is made up of sinners, and it’s this paradox which binds us together and which makes the community of the church strong, that it can contain within its walls both the weak and the strong, perfection and imperfection; and if ever the church becomes absolutely perfect then it is absolutely too small for the spirit of Christ.  Because the paradox of the church is that we are sinners, all of us, that we are all caught with the very conditions of human life; we have to accept them.  We have to accept our own imperfections ultimately before we can accept the imperfections of others, and we have to accept the imperfections of the church of which we are a part.

It is very easy for ministers these days to slip into the misery school and lament the passing of the church–and it is passing.  The attendance figures are dropping; thousands of churches all over the world are empty.  It is very easy to talk about embalming the church and condemning it to burial.  But the church has a certain genius–as Jesus spoke of it–a leaven in the lump, a certain yeastiness.  There have been many periods in the last 2000 years when the church has become insipid, when it is lost its thrust and its power and its strength and its life; but it has risen again, come to life, and this message of hope that the church dies and rises again over the centuries is basic to our gospel.  Here in this church we have been preaching not only this hope but we have been preaching and writing a sermon together, and this is the sermon I am talking about this morning.  We are not always agreed on it, but in general this is the sermon and the direction; and we’ve put it into wood and into stone so that no matter whether anybody is in the pulpit or not the sermon is being preached.  It is being heard, and as long as men and women meet in this building they will see and hear the sermon which for some 50 years we have been attempting to write in this church.  It’s not always easy to read and it’s not always perfect.

We begin with the communion table.  It’s long, made of solid walnut, and it’s not just a piece of furniture.  There are many who have misgivings about the communion service itself, that the phrases belong to another era–drinking the blood, taking the cup, eating the bread and the body–that these do not speak to our time.  But this table represents a need, the basic need of the church to gather together about this table once a year, once a month, because it is the table at which we hep each other to be honest.  Here, by our coming together around this table, we are confronted by the gathered church, by the judgment of each of us, by the forgiveness of each of us, and by the love of God, and as I said to the official family of the church, if I had one text to throw at you it would be, Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together.  It will be very easy for this church to disintegrate in terms of attendance during the summer months.  The pall, the uncertainty, may stretch into a year or two years.  But we must come together, and this table stands as that great message of the church that it must gather in the name of Christ about the table.

A second object that is not furniture either is the pulpit itself.  This pulpit has been a very wonderful pulpit for me.  I suppose I could say I cut my teeth on it.  When I preached my first sermon here I was frightened to death of two sermons a Sunday, wondering how I could go on for a year.  The thing that I like about the pulpit is that with only one exception, an exception I have told you about before, I have never been throttled.  Nobody has ever told me what to say or what not to say.  This has been a free pulpit.  And I did not make it free.  You made it free.  The minister who comes needs the same kind of freedom from this pulpit.

Whether there is somebody standing in this pulpit or not, it is speaking tremendous words, not only the words of the Bible but the words of life, the word of God ministered through the voice of a minister, the words of love and compassion and comfort to people who are in trouble, the fearless words of prophecy concerning the times in which we live, the sins of our age, the sins of our society, its greed and political manipulations and all the things that destroy the society in which we live.  This needs to be kept the free pulpit and I hope that there will not be a committee, nor a board, nor a group that will ever stop a man from speaking the truth as he sees it from this pulpit, that it shall always be free, that there shall be no littleness in it, that even the words of denominationalism shall never muzzle a man.  We have entered into a day far beyond any little denominational loyalty.  Whether we are Baptists, or Methodists, or Presbyterians, or even Christians is immaterial.  Most of the denominations have accepted the distinctive contributions of the Baptists to the Christian reformation of the Protestants.  Even the Catholics have accepted many things which we taught for years.  We are coming into a period when that particular label can be more of a stumbling block than anything else.  From this pulpit we ought to hear the word of God without its being trimmed to suit any small denomination, whether it’s the Baptist denomination or some other.  This pulpit is beyond that.  But above all, whenever you see this pulpit with the sword on the front of it–I came not to bring peace but a swordremember that the word of truth spoken freely from the pulpit is as a sword dividing us one from another at the same time that it brings the great messages of love and hope and faith and justice.

Add to these two pieces of the sermon the two offering stones which we placed here.  As some of you may or may not know, we had a problem what to do with the offering.  It could be brought up and presented to the ministers and they could place it on the communion table.  We felt that was not the place for the offering.  The ushers could place it under the cross, or over here at the pulpit, but these places seemed a little too obvious.  And so we made these two fine offering stones.  We had never seen offering stones in anybody’s church before, but there is an inscription on these two stones which carries a very real and vital message, and this is the message of the offering.  It’s not Freely ye have received, freely give.  It is simply stated.  First be reconciled to your brother.  I will never forget a particular funeral service in this church when a brother who had not been reconciled sat squarely in front of that one stone and stared at it during the service.  First be reconciled to your brother–there is no other way to worship in this church.  I hope there never will be another way.  First be reconciled to your children; first be reconciled to your wife or your husband; first be reconciled to those who are different from you, other races, other nations.  First be reconciled, and if you are not reconciled, keep your money in your pocket.  Do not give it until you have made that pilgrimage of reconciliation in your life, because if you do not do it then everything you do for the church really turns to ashes.  The other stone has the remaining words of the text:  then come and offer your gift.   These stones we mean to preach the third point of the sermon over and over and over again so no one forgets it, that this is the way we have to worship.

Over to my left are the flowers.  Three men of our church who have constructed various things for us built this place for flowers–I want to call it an altar.  They completed it yesterday.  I think the flowers in the church need to stand not only as something beautiful which is here today and gone tomorrow, which is very fragile the way life is fragile, but they need to say to us, “Here is something you cannot make with all your plastics and all your arts and all your skills.”  You cannot make these flowers.  At least, if you make the in imitation they cannot reproduce themselves; they do not have the seeds of life within them as these do.  I want the fowers to say, “Here is a spot of beauty, something you cannot buy, something you cannot package, something you cannot haul away in a truck.  A million dollars will not really buy it if you do not have the eye for it.”  And the church needs to constantly say to the world, “There is something in this world that’s more than money.”  We are living in a very materialistic period.  I think it is all around us, but our particular society has outdone almost all other societies in its ability to give material goods to the great masses of our people.  Many of us have become obsessed by them, enslaved by our cars and our houses and everything else.  The church always calls us back, to this gift of beauty in the flowers.

To my right are the plantings, the green plantings which have been with us from the very beginning of this new building.  I am always amazed when people go through the building–how they must go up to the plants and feel them to see whether they are real or not.  I hope they will never discover they are not real.  They are real!  And they represent the whole celebration of life which is the worship service itself.  They represent the growing edge–all those leaves as they come out month after month.  There is growth here, there is life here.  The plantings to the right have a minimum of sunlight and yet they survive, and I hope they speak to everyone who is struggling with his life, with darkness in life, saying that you, too, can survive, that you can reach for light, and that there is to your life and to the life of this church an edge which is always growing and always changing.  And if this change which is coming to all of us us next Sunday has something to say to us, let it say that this is the condition of being alive, that you have to change, that you cannot always have it the way it was, that you have to tell it the way it is, and you have to live it the way it is, that there must be a growing edge and when the growing edge is gone, death is there.

 

Then there are the words inscribed over the chancel:  One is your master, the Christ, and you are all brothers.  I have preached on these words on several occasions.  We chose these words with care.  They speak to the whole question of differences and poverty and trouble.  One is your master, the Christ, and you are all brothers.  It was Harrington who first made us aware how poor people are, how many millions of poor starving people there are within the borders of the United States.  A church like this, sitting on a little knoll on the south side of Third Street, can beome a sort of gem, a little architectural thing which you look at, you carry around on a pillow.  If it does, it’s lost its real reason for being.  Its real reason for being is to reach out to wherever there is need, human need and poverty, and if we stop reaching out to the poor, this church will lose its reason for existence.  This church is not just a sounding board for preachers.  This is not a preaching station.  This is a congregation of men and women who have committed themselves as a community and who are concerned for the poor, and if we ever stop being truly concerned, individually, and corporately as a congregation, we will have missed what we are here for as the followers of Christ.  The poor heard Him gladly.  The poor are not sitting in our congregation, in our pews–they may never sit in our pews.  Our class consciousness may make it too uncomfortable for them to be part of this church, but it should never be said that we do not in this church reach out with money, with compassion, with love, with our ministers, with our people, to anyone in need; that we ever deny that the need exists.  We are tackling poverty as poverty has never been tackled before in the history of the world.  We have made many mistakes.  There are many things we do not know about how to meet poverty, but we are at least trying and this church is trying, and I hope it keeps on.

The last place is the cross, which as you know is made of African mahogany, bound with black steel, prophetically speaking to the crisis of the races.  My own opinion is that this particular symbol–not only because of its history in the Christian Church as a cross of suffering and love, redemption and reconciliation–speaks to our time and it will speak to this church for the next fifty years of a problem, a white problem, a black problem, which is not going to go away.  Many of you are tired of picking up your newspapers every day and reading one to ten or twenty stories about the race question.  If I hear one criticism more than any other about the minister, it is that I have been hitting you over the head with the question of the race problem.  I haven’t meant to do it, but I think that no matter if we are black or white this is the point at which whether or not we are Christian is tested by fire.  The tests up to now have been simple tests, not very difficult.  For twenty years we have had people of other races as members of this church, members of our boards, officers in the church; these are comparatively simple things.  They stand merely as a sort of symbol to the world that this church has been alive for the past twenty years on this particular question.  We have done many other things about it, but the worst is yet to come.  With people buying guns, stockpiling food in their houses, with the polarization of the whites on one side, and the blacks on the other, we have no idea what is ahead of us.

On the boardwalk of Coney Island I talked to a man who was a Jew who had a souvenir store, souvenirs which sold for 50 cents or a dollar and which were probably worth two cents or a nickel.  He had been on the boardwalk for over 20 years.  Coney Island has changed since the fire, and this man said to me, “Were you here Easter?  Do you know about Easter??”  I said, “No, I am from Indiana,” and he said, “If you are from Indiana you don’t know anything about the problem.”  I said “Well, I was born in New York and grew up in New York, and I think I know something about the problem.”  He said, “Well, Easter Sunday, a hundred or two hundred thousand Negroes came to Coney Island and they filled our stores.  They said terrible things to our women.  I closed the store at four o’clock in the afternoon.  I was frightened.  I didn’t know what to do.  I’m really a liberal.  I’m a Roosevelt liberal.  I’m a liberal from way back.  I’m a Jewish liberal.  But if you would hand me a crd today to sign to join the Ku Klux Klan, I’d join it.”  And that is about the most frightening thing I have heard except all the sick jokes about Martin Luther King’s death.

We have not seen what is coming.  We do not know what is coming.  We can hope for some unexpected twist and turn of events that may redeem us before we destroy our society, turn it into a couple of concentration camps.  But it is here–and prophetically we have seen in this church that this is the place where we are going to be tested.  In Bloomington I have never known so much hatred, so much prejudice against blacks as there is now.  I have never before heard people speak with such feeling against them.  On the other side of the fence, I have not before heard blacks speaking against whites the way they are speaking in Bloomington today.  Now Bloomington is a microcosm.  This is a very small segment of the problem.  We may never know what will be known in Detroit, Newark, Gary, Chicago, New York, but as a Christian member of this community you cannot glibly dismiss this problem and say “I am sick of the race question.”  The race question is the world’s question.  It is an international question.  It is part of the question in Vietnam.  It is a question for all of us, and our Christianity will be tested by how well we do our homework and how much there is in us of the realism of Christ and the love and spirit of Christ.

The rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon the house.

 

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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.   Isaiah 40:31

 

This sermon was delivered from notes rather than from a manuscript, and the text as it appears here was taken from a tape recording.

 

 

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