Sermon by Tom Are, Jr. Delivered at the 1989 Montreat Youth Conference on Friday, August 11, 1989.
Conference Theme: "Caution: Under Construction"
Transcribed by Mark Baker-Wright
There is… there is construction going on. We’ve talked about it. It’s real. It’s not just a theme. It’s not just a conference. It is a way that we choose to express a reality. It is an image that we use to express something that is really happening. There is construction going on. Now, we may be more aware of it this week because we’ve been talking about it, but it didn’t begin this week. It has been going on ever since God created. And the good news in that is, you need to know, it does not end tonight. It will go on. Now, you may have felt some of the construction this week. You may have felt it in ways that you haven’t felt it before, or at least not recently. We’ve called it “Montreat Magic.” That’s what we’ve called it. And it hasn’t happened to everybody and we know it. But it has happened to some, and we’re grateful for it. But it should be clear to us that we say, “it’s not magic.” It’s not magic. What we are really trying to express… an image we are trying to claim is that at times when we are gathered with God’s people, God’s presence feels very real, and we know that God is with us. That’s what we refer to. And what’s important for us to be aware of is that if it’s not magic, but it is God’s presence, then it is not bound to this place. No, it goes with us, and we can claim it… not in every moment. It won’t happen in every moment… but it can happen where we are and whenever we are gathered with those who claim to be disciples of Jesus Christ. It’s not magic. It’s God’s presence in our lives, and it will go with us from this place. The construction goes on. Thanks be to God.
Now, what are we constructing? The people of God. What are we building? The church. Perhaps even the kingdom. The holy reign of our God. The rule of God amongst God’s people.
What’s it like? A word we can use to describe the condition of the construction is a word that some of you’ve talked about this afternoon. The word “shalom.” That is the condition of God’s kingdom. There is no kingdom without shalom. There is no reign of God without shalom. When God rules, shalom exists. And you know that means, shalom, it means “peace.” But it’s more than just the absence of conflict. It is people holding on to one another like brothers and sisters, and refusing to let go. Shalom is justice. It is when all of God’s creatures have what they need to live and to thrive. Shalom is wholeness. It’s when children can play in safety and happiness. It’s when youth can live in a world of affirmation and support. It’s when adults can live free of greed and competition. It when we all can live free of fear and intimidation. Free of hunger and loneliness. And shalom is under construction. For that is God’s will. For shalom. And the day is coming when shalom will abound. The day is coming, for that is our God’s will, and there is nothing that will come in its way. Someday, that day will come. It will be ours.
But it would be unfair... it would be unfair for us to stand here… to gather here in this place and even pretend that that day is today. For we heard very clearly this morning that that day is not now. Somewhere we have to acknowledge that that day may come someday, but on this day, it seems a long, long way away, and a bit unreasonable. See, we can see that even if we just look at ourselves gathered in this auditorium. The generation seated here, gathered here for this conference… we are torn. Youth are torn with fears of not making it. Of being uncertain about tomorrow. We are torn with fears of not knowing what is in store, of not being accepted. Often, you go to schools where learning is not celebrated, but frowned on. Sometimes you live in homes, that are tense, even divided. There are too many of us who cry out, “there is no shalom here.” Our world… our world is threatened every single minute by nuclear destruction. We could flat blow ourselves out of existence. Either by plan or mistake. Thousands upon thousands of people get up every morning and labor all day long and come home, but do not come home with enough wages to put food on the table, and buy notebooks for children to go to school. Too many human beings live in homes that do not keep the rain out! That do not keep the cold out! There are too many of us who cry out, “there is no justice here!”
Now’s the time… now is the time... what did they say this morning? Now is the time when, with every beat of a heart, there is a child who dies of starvation! And a door closes. Now is the time when racial prejudice is legislated in South Africa, but before we get too self-righteous, let us remember it is practiced here! And a door closes. Now is the time… what did they say this morning? Seventy-five thousand people homeless in one city. And the doors close. And they cry out, “shalom!” And I have the audacity? Steve Price and all of his kids have the audacity to stand up here in front you all this week and talk about a divine reign? To talk about God’s kingdom in our midst. If we are to have integrity… if we are to be honest with ourselves… then we must say that that day may come someday, but on this day, it seems a long way away, and a bit unreasonable.
So what do we do? What do we do? We gather here tonight, in this place, and together, you and I, we come to the table. That is what we do. And it is a table, among other things, it is a table that is chock full of memory. And one of things the table forces us to remember is death. It is a table that reminds us that we, as humankind, are very, very familiar with death. It is a table set with the body and blood of our savior, and it is a table that reminds us of the reality of evil. If we come to this table, then it is not our prerogative to fall back into some fantasy world where evil has no power. No, if we gather around this table, then we are forced to remember that evil is real. We are forced to remember the pounding of the hammers. We are forced to remember the hatred in the crowds. We are forced to remember the chill in their voices as they cried out “crucify!” If we come to this table, then we must remember that evil is real. And we will remember that evil is in our lives. We will be aware that sometimes… sometimes evil seems so strong that it could not possibly be overcome.
But this table also reminds us that evil is overcome. This table also reminds us that evil is limited. It is defeated. That evil gave its best shot, and it lost! You see, evil is a power, but it is not a supreme power. You see, when we come to this table… when we come to this table, we see a collision, and it is a collision of the power of evil and the power of our God. It is a collision of the force of all evil in our lives and the force of our Lord’s kingdom: our God’s holy reign. It is a collision between the powers of all the evil that this world can muster and the power of God’s love among God’s people. And this table stands as a witness to us that the power of evil cannot win. There is no power greater than the power of God’s love in God’s people.
Strengthened by the table... holding fast to the grace that is symbolized in this table, then you and I can claim that love. And together… together, you and I, we can stand up for justice. Strengthened by the grace of this table, together, you and I, we can march for peace. Strengthened by the grace of this table, you and I, we can hold on to one another, and we can walk into the world, and share the love of God with all people as brothers and sisters. And we will not turn around. We will not turn around. For we are living toward a kingdom. We are living toward a holy reign that even now our Lord Jesus Christ is ushering in. Shalom is under construction. Shalom is God’s will for his creation, and it is under construction, and it begins right here, at the table.
Earlier this week, during the keynote time… earlier this week, we talked about heroes. Remember that, I think it was Monday or Tuesday, it was early. And there were those who were listed as heroes, who… the world offers… our culture offers a list. And among those would be those who make us laugh. Those who are attractive to look at. There would be those who entertain us. Those are the ones that the paper would list as heroes. And there’s nothing wrong with those qualities. But there’s nothing heroic about them. No, you were the ones who listed the real heroes. Steve Price said it that very day. You were the ones who recognized the qualities that make one a hero. For you were the ones who talked about people who live in love. You were the ones who talked about people who can stand up and show us a way to live. You were the ones who talked about people who can stand in the midst of all the currents and all the voices of our lives, and somehow help us make sense out of it all. And as you spoke of those people, I began to ask myself, “why aren’t those people on the list in the newspaper?” And I became very sad, because I began to believe, maybe those kind of people aren’t found in public life. Maybe those kind of qualities are hard to come by in public life. But then John Richardson stood up. John reminded me of my hero. He was a man, who stood in the day when neighbors hated neighbors, simply because of the color of their skin. He was a man who stood in the day when this nation was divided. Split right down the middle: neighborhoods, water fountains, restaurants, hotels, everything, because of skin color. It was a day when whites hated blacks, and blacks hated whites, and nobody really knew why. It was a day when there seemed that there was no shalom. It’s a day when there seemed there was no justice. But it’s also a day when there was a man. There was a man who stood in the midst of all of that, and he proclaimed a dream. A vision. Somewhat like the visions you heard this morning. But really, a better word for it, is he proclaimed a gospel. And by so doing, he defied the powers of evil to try to overcome the powers of God’s love and God’s people. He defied the forces of evil to try to overcome the moving of God’s reign among God’s people. He defied the powers of evil to try to overcome the powers of shalom. And evil raised up its ugly head….
But it did not win. Oh, it still hangs on, to be clear. But it did not, and it will not win! Because there is no power greater than the power of God’s love among God’s people. Oh, it will take time, to be sure, but love will win. It will take a toll on you, to be sure, but love is the power that will win. It may take your life, but love will win! For love is the power which is moving in our lives. You see, Martin Luther King, Jr. still stands as a witness to us, as a witness that love is not a sentimental reality that lives in a soda shop. Love is a power in our lives. It is moving in our lives. It is God’s presence among God’s people, and it is building God’s reign. It is bringing God's shalom, and it will not be turned around. You see, the tragedy of life can raise its ugly head in our lives, but it will not overcome the power of God’s kingdom. For we know that the day is coming. We know that the day is coming when we will all be brothers and sisters. We know that the day is coming when every child will be well fed. We know that the day is coming when every person will have a home in which to live. For we are living towards the kingdom. We are living towards the day of shalom.
But hear me closely. That day is not just coming. It is not just a day that is wonderful to think about, but is too far away, too distant, too insignificant to affect the living of our lives now. No, that day that is coming is breaking in our lives even now. Even as we gather in this place. For you see, when our Lord sat at this table, he said, “this is the cup of the new covenant. This is the cup of God’s reign. This is the cup of the day of shalom.” It is here in our midst. As Jesus Christ came to reveal the love of God to us... as Jesus Christ came to redeem us from the power of evil, Jesus Christ came to begin the day of shalom that is marching on even now. And the day that is coming has begun! It is real. It is breaking in on our living even now! It is under construction.
I remember… I was eight years old. My mother and father came in, and they had that serious look on their face. The one that says, “we have something very important to tell you.” It usually came right after I had done somethingvery bad. I was a little nervous, we went into their bedroom. Mom and Dad… they were a little nervous. That was evident. They kept looking back and forth at each other. It was clear they had not rehearsed.
And then Mom finally said, “Tom. We want to tell you that you are going to have another brother or sister.”
I said, (in an “awww, man!” fashion) “Again?” I didn’t remember putting in an order for one, you know?
They said, “You’re going to have another brother or sister.”
I said, “Today?”
They said, “No! No, no, no. Not today.”
I said, “This weekend?”
“Not this weekend.”
“Well, when then?”
“Well, sometime in January.”
Well, school hadn’t even started yet, you know? It was still summer. When you’re eight years old, January may not ever get here! I said, “Why tell me now?”
She said, “We just want you to be prepared.”
All right. Well, then, pretty soon, this crib showed up in my room. I said, “Mom, very few people in the second grade are in cribs these days. You know?”
She said, “Tom, it’s not for you! It’s for the baby!”
I said, “The baby’s here?”
She said, “No, son! January!”
I said, “Mom, it’s not Thanksgiving yet.”
“We want to be prepared.”
All right. Then some real strange things started happening. They painted my room. They had never done that. They had never… even when I got the Play-Doh stuck on the wall in the corner, they didn’t even try to paint any of that… but they painted my room. And then they put these little clouds on the wall. I thought that was ridiculous. I thought that poor kid’s gonna feel like he’s falling out of an airplane his whole life!
“It’s for the baby… who’s not here.”
And then, Mom started going to other people’s homes, and having parties… for the kid! She tried to throw me off and tell me they were “showers,” but I knew the difference between a shower and a party. One I would do gladly, the other I hated! But that kid was having a party! Did they bring me anything? No! He still had four months to cook and he’s raking it in!
“It’s for the baby.” You see, long, long before my brother ever fully arrived, he changed our living. You see, the Are house just could not be the same because we knew he was coming. Long before he ever fully arrived, he changed the way we lived our lives because, in a real way, he was already with us. That is the way it is with God’s kingdom. That is the way it is with God’s rule. It is not complete yet. It is not fulfilled yet. But already it is changing the way that we live, because we know that it is coming, we cannot live the same way. It changes us. It breaks into our lives. And it is as real… as real ever is.
So what do we do? We open the doors. We open the doors because there is a world out there who needs what we have. There is a world out there who needs us because we have the promise of the table. And we know that the power of evil is a secondary power. It is not a power that will overcome the power of God’s love among God’s people. So open the doors. Open the doors that there might be a legitimate voice for peace in our world. Open the doors that there might be a sincere cry for justice in our world. Open the doors that the love of God might flow through you into a broken, lonely, fragmented world. Now is the time for us to open the doors. We’re not complete. It’s not finished. But we are living toward that day. We are claiming its reality in our lives, even as we gather here, so now is the time for us to open the doors.
Empowered by the grace of the table, we can open the doors and reveal to the world that we are indeed the family of God. And we can proclaim to a hurting world that as the family of God, as the people of God, we are living toward God’s holy reign. It is changing our lives even now.
Empowered by the grace of the table, we can open the doors and proclaim that living toward God’s reign means it is not an option for us for human beings to live under bridges. It is not an option for us for human beings to go through garbage to try to find their next meal.
Empowered by the grace of the table, we can open the doors and proclaim to a world that living toward God’s holy reign means that it is not an option for us to store millions upon millions of pounds of food in silos in holes in the ground while there are children all around our world with shriveling stomachs because they have nothing to eat.
Empowered by the grace of the table, we can proclaim to the world that living toward God’s holy reign means it is not an option for us for our children to wake up in the middle of the night with nightmares, drawing pictures of a world exploding because they live in fear of nuclear destruction.
We can open the doors. Now is the time to open the doors and to proclaim to the world that we are indeed the family of God, and we are living toward God’s day, and it is breaking in on us even now.
What do we do? We gather around the table, and take the cup of the new covenant, which says, “the day is coming.” But it also says, “now is the time.” Now is the time for us to acknowledge and claim the truth of who we are; that we are indeed children of the covenant. Now is the time for us to proclaim to the world that we indeed have a blueprint, and we will seek to love our God with all that we are, and we will seek to love our neighbor. We will be servants of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now is the time for us to recognize that all people are precious in our God’s sight, and that we are connected. We are brothers and sisters. Now is the time for us to claim the realities and the power of God’s forgiveness in our lives, that we might have the willingness, and the power to hold on to one another. Now is the time for us to open the doors, and proclaim that there is a truth at this table. And the truth of this table is that God’s love is moving in this world, and it is changing our lives even now. Now is the time to open the doors and to claim God’s promise for us as God’s people.
I believe that… I believe that with all that I am. Not because I believe we are special. Not because I believe we have more faith than the centuries of church people who have gone before us. I believe that simply because I believe that the God we worship will hold onto us and will not let us go, will lead us into God’s day of his holy reign.
Empowered… the power of evil will not overcome.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, we believe. Help our unbelief. In Christ’s name, Amen.
This transcribed version of the sermon has been mildly edited and formatted for Transforming Seminarian. It is noted that the original sermon was delivered in an extemporaneous style, and that this transcript has attempted to retain that style, not to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template. Copyright for this message is retained by Rev. Tom Are, Jr.