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A Tale of Two Sermons

Recently, Ted Wilson preached at our church.  We have two services on Sabbath morning and I listened to both sermons since I was involved in the music. As a progressive Adventist with what some would term liberal leanings, I was intrigued to hear the president of the General Conference speak in person while at the same time feeling uneasy about the expected conservative content of his message.  I was not prepared for what came next.

During the more intimate first service, Wilson stepped to the podium and expressed genuine appreciation for those of us involved in the music, looking at each of us individually.  He proceeded to focus on the centrality of Christ in our doctrines, emphasizing the importance of relationships.  I felt recognized, encouraged, and convicted for my prior misgivings.  When he delineated the specific ways in which we can lift up Christ, he called for an affirmation of God as creator without using any extra-biblical language.  He called for us to lift up Christ in our service to others, through our interactions at work, as well as with our holy lifestyles.  When he finished and asked us to stand to show our commitment to lift up Christ in our lives, I was one of the first to feel called to my feet.  Tears of peace filled my eyes as everywhere I looked we were all standing together.  I was embraced and inspired.

The second sermon felt much different.  The congregation swelled to overflowing.  Unable to pick us out of the crowd, Wilson’s recognition of the music took on a more generic tone.  The morning’s focus on the centrality of Christ was overshadowed by a fearful description of the troubling end times in which we live and the importance of our exclusive Adventist message.  The earlier emphasis on relationships was mentioned only in passing with more time devoted to the specifics of how to lift up Christ including a call to affirm creation in “six literal 24-hour contiguous days.”  In addition, there was a greater emphasis on the call to holy living.  The division between our theological positions seemed no longer transcended by a centered-set emphasis on the centrality of Christ.  When the call came to stand if we wanted to lift up Christ, I was one of the last to be forced up from the pew, all the while wanting to shed tears of sorrow.  The man seated next to me didn’t rise.  I felt excluded and disheartened.

Both sermons followed a similar outline.  Texts, quotes, and anecdotes were essentially unchanged.  There was only a shift in emphasis and tone which pulled my gaze down from the embracing centrality of Christ to our exclusion and in-fighting with one another.  Emphasis and tone matter.  They make all the difference.  I wish the first sermon had been the only sermon I heard that day.  But, more than that, I wish the first sermon had been the one given at the GC session in Atlanta.

In the Adventist community, liberals are inclined to leave and conservatives tend to push them out.  As a result, our community is becoming increasingly conservative through a positive feedback cycle of liberal abandonment coupled with growth in locales and populations more attracted to conservative ideology.

As Alden Thompson notes in his recent book, Beyond Common Ground:  Why Liberals and Conservatives Need Each Other, whether an individual is liberal or conservative may have as much or more to do with the way we are created rather than the way we are indoctrinated.  If this is the case, all of us both liberal and conservative are needed in order for the message of the Kingdom of God to be revealed.  Following the world’s example of increasing polarization and divisive rhetoric in our Adventist community may actually be a crippling handicap which diminishes our prophetic role in the body of Christ and delays the spread of the gospel to the ends of the earth.

Do liberals and conservatives really need one another?  Is it possible to achieve unity amidst diversity rather than forcing uniformity by excluding those with whom we disagree?

My answers to these questions would have varied depending on which sermon I had just experienced.  After the first sermon, it seemed that Christ was revealed and the Kingdom of God had come.  Standing with my Adventist community, our hope in the future fullness of God’s Kingdom was made tangible in the present through our interdependence.  Following the second sermon, I had difficulty seeing past our differences.  Hope seemed a mere wish for the otherwise absent Christ.

As we stood for the closing hymn at the conclusion of both services the words to the classic Advent hymn we sang took on very different meanings.  “We have this hope that burns within our hearts, hope in the coming of the Lord.”  First I sang with eyes full of joy at the unified community exemplifying the coming completion of God’s Kingdom.  Then, I sang with a heart burdened by sorrow recognizing how often the self-giving love of Christ is needed but absent from our divided midst.  “Even so, come Lord Jesus.”

Brenton Reading writes from Shawnee, KS where he lives with his wife Nola and their three children.  He is a pediatric interventional radiologist at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, MO.

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