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Word On A Road Sign

This sermon was preached on July 13, 2014, at the Patterson Avenue Baptist Church in Richmond, VA. , by Dr. Bill Nieporte,.

The sermon is titled:  “Words on a Road Sign” and is based on Romans 8:1-2

You can watch the video below.  A podcast can be downloaded at the church website:  Patterson Avenue Baptist Church

Below the video, you will find a copy of the manuscript.

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Words on a Road Sign

 There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ–if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:1-2)

There is a road sign near I-95 near the Virginia Center Commons Mall that recently got my attention.  The central line on the sign simply says:  “Summer Sex Series.” Of course, I looked closer. The road sign advertises a Richmond area congregation.  Throughout the summer months, the pastor of that fellowship will be preaching a series of sermons on the subject of sex.  It’s is his “Summer Sex Series.”

Now I am not going to give you the name of the congregation because I’m afraid many of you would be there next week instead of here.   But that’s the aim of this stimulating road sign, isn’t it? That fellowship used the road sign to say something provocative, hoping that it might inspire people to attend to their worship gatherings.

It got me thinking.  If I had access to one of those road signs for just one week, what might I want it to say about the truth of the gospel.

What if we could put a banner up in front of this building?  You know we have an excellent location.  Patterson Avenue is a central thoroughfare extending from the central part of the city, all the way out to the West End of Metro-Richmond region.  More than 5,000 cars daily pass in front of this building.

What if we road sign or a banner in front of this building to advertise what happens when we gather in this place?    What is the core truth we seek to proclaim?    How do we relate (or perhaps how should we relate) to one another?

We put banners out on the street already.  If we have a special event like Vacation Bible School, we post a banner.  When the pumpkins arrive, we advertise on a banner.  At this moment there is a banner at the corner in front of the facility advertising the weekly Food Truck Court.

The sign and banners normally advertise our activities.  What might we say if we put a message on one of those road signs? This past week I asked some of my friends from various backgrounds, theologies, and traditions to share their thoughts.  I asked, “If you had access to a road sign on which you could post eight words or less about your church (its message or core doctrine), what would you say?” I received several unique and interesting responses.

One gal said her sign would read,  “Open-minded, Open-hearted.”  Another said he would post in great big letters the phrase:  “ALL ARE WELCOME.” Others listed sermons titles which they said summed up their understanding of the gospel.  Here are a few of my favorites:

I Promise You..Gospel Means Good News!

God Loves You, No Ifs, Ands, Or Buts…

God Loves You No Matter What!

The Gracious God Revealed in Jesus Christ!

Jesus: God Loving and Liking YOU Unconditionally!

 

Thinking about our scripture lesson for today, I tried to imagine what the Apostle Paul might have said in response to my question.

“Paul, if you could hang a sign declaring your theology in eight words or less, for all the world to see, what would you say?”

In today’s text, Paul writes to the church at Rome, saying:  “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” I imagine Paul’s banner might simply read:  “No Condemnation.”

Imagine those words on a banner in front of this building.

Patterson Avenue Baptist Church

Worship, 11:00AM

“No Condemnation

 

Thousands of motorists would see it.  Most would simply ignore it.  Others have been among church people where this phrase was far from being a watchword, so they’d question it or reject it.  You know that sometimes these places we call “church” often feels very arrogant, judgmental, and filled with condemnation.  You know what I mean.  You see those expressions from those who seem to be looking down their noses at you.  Those wagging fingers accompanied but disapproving looks.

I am wearing that tie again.  This was the first Father’s Day gift that my daughter Michelle was ever able to consciously pick out for me.  It has the characters from “The Flintstones” on it – Fred, Barney, Wilma, and Betty. I wore it proudly on Father’s Day in my first post-seminary congregation on the Northern Neck.  After services, Michelle was standing with me in the foyer as worshippers left our gathering.  One lady, the church organist, made her way to the foyer.  She never left through this door, unless she had something to complain about. One lady was complimenting Michelle for doing such a good job picking me a gift, when this other lady approached.  “I think it is a very inappropriate tie for the pastor to wear on a Sunday morning in worship.” I saw Michelle’s face, on the verge of tears.  She felt put down and condemned for the gift of love she had given her dad.

I knew a lady, once – in that same church.  She was 91 on my arrival at the church and had many wonderful stories to tell about life on the Northern Neck.

She told of a time when she was a teenager and several of her friends were in her house.  They were playing with a deck of cards.  There was a knock at the door from the other end of the house.  The Reverend F.W. Claybook was standing there when Gazelle approached the door.  Mr. Claybrook was known for being extremely strict and very legalistic. “Oh Mr. Claybook, it’s so good to see you,” Gazelle said very loudly, so the others could hear.  “We are all in the back of the house reading the Bible,” she continued.  Sure enough, by the time she and Mr. Claybook got to the other end of the house, the playing cards were gone and Bibles were open and in everyone’s hands.   They knew they’d experience condemnation if Mr. Claybrook had seen a deck or cards instead of open Bibles. These seem like insignificant things, but they were not.  At a very young age, my daughter associated condemnation, rather than love, with people down and the church.  Those young people in Mrs. Eubanks house felt the need to deceive, rather than face the condemnation of their pastor.  If he’d be that way over a deck of cards, can you imagine how little true joy would flow from his ministry.

Those stories might seem like little things, but when you face condemnation for a deck of cards or a Flintstones tie, imagine how else people might put you down when you attend a gathering of “the church.” Think about the emotionally broken and beaten people who come to a church meeting house, searching for love and a hungering for inclusion, and then end up rejected people because of who they are or something they have done. In my ministry I have spoken with lots of people who have swore off of ever attending a church gathering because they have felt put down and condemned because of the  places in their lives that seem broken according to the sensibilities of the religious crowd.

There was the woman who has had an abortion when she was young.  For more than a decade she lived with guilt and shame and sorrow.  She wishes it had never happened, but she can’t undo what’s been done.  She started attending a Bible study group at the invitation of a friend.  They all seemed so kind, until she got up enough courage to confess what had happened. “I cannot believe you would kill your own baby!” said one of the people.  Nobody spoke up for her.  Nobody offered her a word of grace. “You seem like a decent enough guy for a pastor,” she said to me.  “But I will never go back to church after that!”

Don’t even let me get started about the young lady I know who struggles with questions of her sexual identity.  She find some men attractive.  She finds some women attractive, too.  It’s a struggle she’d prefer not to have, but she can’t help how she feels.  And she would never dare to tell her church for fear that she might feel condemnation and rejection. There is the young man who struggles with drug addiction.

The older man whose lost his license for drunk driving.

The couple who are “with child” but not yet married.

The man who lost his business, was deserted by his wife, and ended up having to change churches because of the condemnation he was served by those who were once his brothers and sisters.  He goes to a place where nobody knows anything about him.  He arrives late and leaves early.  He’s lonely and wants to be accepted, but he is unsure if that’s even possible in a place called “church.”

I could add dozens of stories to a list just like these.

People who have certain inclinations not consider right.

People who have made terrible mistakes.

People who have experience epic failure.

People who feel broken, bruised, and beaten.

People who by their own admission have made a mess of their life

These are all people who at some point in their lives will hunger for that word of grace that we speak about so eloquently in the meeting house.  These are people hungry for acceptance and love, whom upon finding themselves among church people, experience nothing but rejection and condemnation.

These folks avoid Christians.  There experience is that there is nothing Christ-like about them.  They avoid churches, not so much because they are rejecting the idea of God, but rather because they have been rejected by God’s people.  Or if they do, somebody says they are “darkening the door of the church,” while advising others to stand back in case of a lightning strike.

So this is a challenge for us today.  I think we’re pretty good and being kind, gracious, loving, and accepting.  But there are times that I wonder.  I wonder if I am being that inclusive, loving, accepting kind of person that the scripture advocates we are to be, or is my attitude more judgmental.

Could I, in good conscience, hang a banner in front of this building, or in front of my house, or over my life, that says, “With me you will experience NO CONDEMNATION?”

Imagine we had those words on a banner outside this building.

A young lady is jogging down Patterson Avenue, she’s been cheating on me husband…and he’s discovered the secret.  She is sorry about what she’s done.  He’s broken-hearted, but loves his wife and wants to make it work.  She wants it to work, too.  But where do go?  Who do they talk to?  She confided in her mother, a very religious woman.  That was a mistake.  Then she reads that banner.  “No condemnation!”  Sundays at  11 a.m.

“Is it possible?” she thinks to herself.
A middle aged homosexual man is driving down the Powhite Parkway.  He doesn’t know what to do with those inclinations.  He can help how he feels.  He wish he could, but he can’t.  He’s not looking for an excuse or permission to act on his feelings.   He just wants some friends who will accept him the way he always heard Jesus accepted folks when he use to go to church back when he was a child.  He passes one of those big road signs.  It’s advertising this congregation and it reads simply:  “No condemnation.” Sundays, 11 a.m.

“Is it possible,” he mutters out load as he passes by the sign.

Paint whatever scenario you wish

Picture whatever type person you want

In fact…make it whatever type person challenges you the most.  Make is a homeless man, a prostitute, a drug addict, an illegal alien, or a politician.

They read the road sign:  “No Condemnation!”

What’s going on inside their heads?  They puzzled over these two words until their puzzler hurts.  They wonder if it’s possible,  Can there be a place – much less a church – where there is no such thing as condemnation?

So maybe they show up one Sunday, to see if it is true.  One of us reads words from our big black book.  They listen as we read:

“There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

They remember the words on the road sign : “No condemnation.”

But wait a minute.  It sounds like there might be a catch.  “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!” “Why does there always have to be insiders and outsiders?” they say to themselves.

Oh, and they also think:  “If these people knew me…knew what I have done, what I am feeling, what’s going on in my life…if they knew all of that, I would certainly be the outsider.  They would let me anywhere near their precious Christ.” But then maybe they’d hear something amazing.  Something that sounds like  really good news. Something that get them to wondering if this just might be a place for them…a place acceptance – a place free from condemnation.

Somebody stands up and start talking about what these people are all about as followers of this man named Jesus.  They heard these words:

“God’s desire for the church is that it be a place where God’s love, grace, and inclusion in Christ is made accessible to all people.”

“God’s desire for the church is that it be a place that speaks like Jesus did when he spoke to the woman caught in adultery, saying; ‘I do not condemn you.  Go and stop sinning.”

“God’s desire for the church is that is be a place where wandering prodigal’s are welcomed home, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.”

“God’s desire for the church is that is declares the good news that in Christ all are welcomed, have a place, are loved, and are included.”

“God’s desire for the church is that it declares and celebrates the grace of God made real in  Christ Jesus.

“God’s desire for the church is that it be a place without boundaries or restrictions, but rather be a place that declares that in Christ people are liked, loved, accepted, included, and adopted.” People are wondering if it is possible.  Maybe you wonder if it is possible as well.  Well, I am here to tell you that I know that it is true.  I have seen you when you life is allowed to flow from the Holy Spirit.  In this moments – and there are many of them – this is a place without condemnation.

We’ve got liberals here, and conservatives, too.  Probably more of the latter.  But we sit at the same table to eat dinners and share stories. There are some well off people here, and others that struggle to get by.  But both have found a place of acceptance in this community.

Don’t worry.  I know we are not perfect.  Sometimes we probably do come down on people harder than we should.  On occasions, we beat each other and we beat ourselves up, too.  But I am not here to condemn you for that kind of behavior.  I am here to tell you that this is not who we really are. I visited Eloise Ridgeway this past week.  She’s 103 years old and has seen so many things change over her lifetime.  We lamented the decline in numbers we have experienced as a congregation in recent years.  We’ve had some people relocate to different places.  We’ve had children enter adulthood and go away to college and into careers.  And, sadly, we’ve lost a lot of people to death. Eloise and I spoke about how hard it was to grow a church.  There are so many things going on in the world.  Stores are open on Sunday.  Sporting event are taking place.  Blockbuster movies are showing in the theatre.  There are so many things going on to distract us.  It wasn’t like that when she was young. What can we do?  We can’t compete with the entertainment value of the new “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” movie.  Our musicians are good, but the music we sing (even in a praise service) is not going to appeal to those at the concerts in the park.  The fall festival is fun.  We can get a juggler to come do a show for kids.  We can do lots of things…but so can the Kiwanis Club, the Masonic Lodge, the Richmond Squirrels, and Virginia Commonwealth University. “So, tell me, Bill,” Eloise said, “What do we have to offer?” I’ve been thinking about that question a lot this week.  What do we have to offer? We can be people of grace.  We can offer people the love of the God revealed in Jesus the Christ.

We can let people know, wherever we go, that they are loved and welcomed without condemnation.

Really, it’s not so much about the road sign on the highway, or a banner in front of the building, that matters.  Anyone can hang a sign.

What if we determined to go deeper?  Not for a day or for a week – but for the rest of our lives.

What if we decided today that what we do here is not just a religious game or enterprise?

What if we decided to fully and completely come to grips with this revolutionary idea of living life without condemnation – without criticizing, accusing, or blaming – either ourselves or anyone else?

That’s would be something, wouldn’t it?  That would be something that this world needs.  That’s the gift we have to offer as we live life from the resources of God’s grace and the presence of God’s Holy Spirit within us.

No condemnation.  No condemnation.  No condemnation.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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