Douglass Blvd Christian Church

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"Changes" by Rev. Ryan Kemp-Pappan (Matthew 22:1–14)

Today Ryan Kemp Pappan delivered his final sermon to Douglass Boulevard Christian Church. It is appropriately titled, "Changes." This is his spike of the mike, his Hollywood ending.

Sort of.

This is Ryan's unfeigned love.

During his three years at Douglass, Ryan has changed the church and changed its members profoundly. We will be celebrating Ryan, his wife Meredith, and their ministry at Douglass at a potluck on October 23rd following church. Please join us to honor Ryan and the catalyzing change he has effected at Douglass.

Click the link below for the sermon audio or just subscribe to our podcast in iTunes and you won't miss a single sermon…

"Changes" by Ryan Kemp-Pappan

Integrity Can Be Lonely

“All of them deserted him and fled” (Mark 14:51).

I was reading an article not long ago about a famous preacher. One of his admirers made the comment that one could tell this preacher’s ministry had “integrity” by virtue of the number of people in his church (50 bazillion people, or some other astronomical number). I often hear something closely approximating that same sentiment from well-meaning church folk. I was talking to a colleague on the phone awhile back, when the topic of one of this state’s “premiere” evangelists arose (I’m not sure how “premiere” qualifies as a theological descriptor). He said: “Well, look how many people he draws. He must be doing something right.” To which I replied, “Obviously, he’s doing something right — but it may or may not have anything to do with God, or faithfulness, or discipleship.”

I was taken aback by the assumptions underlying such a statement, that is, that God is most intensely present in the large, the successful, the well-attended. I am amazed that people who read the Bible are still naïve enough to make comments to the effect that the bigger the church, the more “integrity” is in evidence. If mere size is the only criterion for judging faithfulness, then Jim Jones had more integrity, was blessed in richer fashion than 99% of the ministers in the world. If size is what God uses to show us who is doing a better job at proclaiming the Gospel, then the bozos on televisions who preside over vast broadcasting empires are, by definition, closer to the kingdom of heaven than the rest of us laboring in tiny, “unblessed” congregations lacking “integrity.”

On the other hand, that leaves us in pretty good company—I mean, what with Jesus dying abandoned and alone—presumably stripped of his blessedness and integrity. (His ministry fell on hard times. I imagine it was hard to make budget after Good Friday.) Where did we get the idea that if it is getting bigger, God must be in the middle of it? Is God to be found in the market analysis? If popularity is the standard by which faithfulness in ministry is judged, then Jesus is not the person we ought to hold up as the standard-bearer for our vocation. Because Jesus nailed all that hooey about popularity and big crowds and succeeding according to this world’s standards on a cross one Friday afternoon. Tell Jesus how blessed he was as you stare into his face on the cross. (Just try not to get any blood on yourself. It can get messy being a Christian.)

That is not to say that the Gospel doesn’t have appeal; it does. But any appeal that Jesus has has to do with losing our lives, with turning the other cheek, with the first being last, with forgiving our enemies and those who persecute us, with selling all that we have and giving it to the poor, with dropping our nets and all the things the world says we need to be successful, in order to pick up our crosses and follow him. (Try selling that stuff with your anointed prayer cloths. “User-friendly God,” indeed.) The appeal of Jesus is to the last, the least, the lost, and the dead—presumably because they are the only ones who know that they aren’t successful enough to sail in under their own steam. At least in the gospels, it is precisely the big religious muckity-mucks that Jesus avoids like the plague. Jesus isn’t impressed with toothy smiles, blow-dried hair, and healthy Neilsen ratings. He spends his time with those that this world has declared losers.

Jesus doesn’t call us to succeed; he calls us to die. Success is his alone; and alone is how he died. Sometimes, integrity can be lonely.

Just Hanging On

“Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed” (Heb. 12:12-13).

At one point in the church I served some years back, we had a particularly large spate of deaths. People who had been pillars began to die, and the effect unnerved everyone. One lady said to me, “Preacher, it looks like this year is going to be one for the books.”

At the time, I wished I knew what to say to that. Even now I wish I could say that death happens, and that people get sick, and that people suffer, and that that is all a part of life this side of the eschaton. Actually, what I mean to say is that I wish I could say all of that in a way that would make sense of all the tears. I wish I could say something that eased the ache in all of our hearts when fear confronts us. I wish I could say something really pastoral, full of confidence and solace. I wish . . .

I knew that there were people hurting in our church. There were people who were afraid of what our church would look like after we had fought our battle of attrition with death, people afraid of what life would look like without our heroes, without the faces we had counted on to pick us up when we had fallen, to soothe us when we mourned, to chastise us when we quit, to teach us when we sought, to lead us when we wandered.

In my personal life, as many of you are aware, it appears as though “this is going to be one for the books.” With both my father in Hospice and my youngest brother with an advanced form of colo-rectal cancer, things have weighed heavily on my family recently. I want to thank all of you who have asked about and prayed for the situation my family faces. I’m grateful for your love and support. But I’m not the only one facing difficult times. I know that many of you also have concerns about your loved ones, anxiety about what your future may hold. Please know that you’re part of a community that longs to walk beside you through uncertain times—even when we don’t have any good answers to give.

Most days, getting out of bed is a habit for us that requires little thought and little motivation. But when the skies darken and our horizons fade in the night, figuring out how to survive another day, let alone move forward, without the certainty that the familiar human landmarks of our lives will always be with us seems impossible. Despair comes easy.

And yet, somehow God calls us forward. Like a lover God stands before us, wooing us toward our collective future, asking not that we should forget our pain, but that we should endure in spite of it. In the face of great pain God neither requires great acts of bravery, nor does God expect it; what God requires and expects of us is faithfulness. Because in some ironic twist of circumstance, our faithfulness in the face of our fear and grief transforms us into models for those who come behind us. Then, even though we are scarred, we may be healed.

Sometimes hanging on is the best we can do. According to our faith, sometimes hanging on is the best there is. Thanks for helping me hang on.