The Rev. Ricky A. Woods, senior pastor of First Baptist Church-West, preached the following sermon on Sunday, April 26, just days after Bishop Anthony Jinwright was indicted on federal charges related to allegations of tax fraud:
There are occasions in society when current events provide for the church a teaching moment.
Such was the case when President Clinton found himself the subject of a private moral lapse that became a national scandal. Such was the case during the presidential campaign last year when the words of a black preacher were used as a political tool to divide a nation around issues of race.
This week we were provided another teaching moment in the indictment of Bishop Anthony Jinwright.
I do not come today to pass verdict on Bishop Jinwright. I count him as friend and colleague in ministry. I will leave the matter of judgment to the courts and heaven’s council chamber. I am here today to call the church to reflect for a moment on just how complicated matters of faith are for persons who read the Bible closely.
If we take this sacred book seriously, we will discover conflicts in views and the way that God operates that should make none us too quick to rush to a decision on the right or wrong of a matter, because God’s ways are not like our ways and his thoughts are not like our thoughts. In every situation, a person of faith must begin by rising the question, What is God up to, or what are the forces against God up to?
In real life, as much as we hate to admit it, we are more pawns than we are independent thinkers and actors on life stage. Forces sometimes beyond our ability to explain influence our actions for good or bad. Paul put it this way: The good that I would do I do it not, and the evil that I would not do, that I do.
In every life situation, we need discernment of that God-thing in us that helps us to see God’s hand at work, or some other hand working against God.
I confess, my heart is heavy because I love the church, but she often falls short in so many ways of being what God designed her to be. My heart is heavy because, in spite of the disappointments that I have experienced in the church and even pain that is beyond description, I have decided not to leave the church because she is what Jesus said he would come back for one day.
So here we are with another of a long list of scandals that will become another reason persons will use to talk evil of her who my soul loves. So here we are with another scandal to give persons reasons to talk evil of those who so often make so many sacrifices for countless others without ever hearing a single word of gratitude.
The press told us of the cars, of the houses, of the perks, but told us nothing of the ministry that has occurred over a 28-year period. We heard nothing of the baptisms, the weddings, the funerals, the hospital visits, the bible studies, the sermons or the new church that was built since Bishop Jinwright came to Salem.
We heard nothing of the service to the General Baptist State Convention and how Salem hosted the convention the first year Dr. J.B. Humphrey (late First Baptist Church-West senior pastor) was president of the convention. We heard nothing of the work with Lott Carney and foreign missions or the efforts put forward for years to bring the Congress of Christian Education to Charlotte, which did eventually come, but with Friendship Missionary Baptist Church hosting.
What we heard was a lot about an implied lifestyle that was above someone in ministry. What we heard were charges and claims of tax evasion. So now, listen to two texts that may shed light on how people of faith are to view the current events.
The first text is about a prophet, a widow and her son. There is a famine in the land and times are hard. There has been no rain for some time and almost all vegetation is gone. For a season the prophet has been cared for by divine waiters — ravens that brought him bread and meat in the morning and in the evening. God had placed the prophet at a place of rest beside a brook that provided all the water he needed. After some time the brook dried up and the ravens stopped bringing food, but God is still speaking and the prophet is sent to the house of a widow who God has destined to feed him.
When Elijah reaches the widow’s home, he discovers not a woman of means but a woman living in poverty. She is so poor that she and her son are gathering sticks for their last meal. Their plan is to have this meager meal of a floury cake and then wait to die from starvation.
This is the scene that Elijah walks in on and makes a bold, outlandish request: Give to me first.
There was no news outlet to report how a greedy preacher took advantage of a widow and son. There was no community gossip about how she could be foolish enough to even consider such an idea.
Elijah’s request comes with the bold prediction that, if she would do as he said, she would always have enough of what she needed for herself: I know that you do not know me and just met me, but I am God’s man, and if you do as I say, as strange as it may sound, you will not die from starvation, for God will ensure that the barrel will never get empty and the jar will always have a little oil.
We are told that she went and did as Elijah said, and she and her household ate for many days. To some, this story is another story about a greedy preacher always preying off the poor and the uninformed. But for persons of faith, this story is a story about how God challenges us sometimes to give all that we have and trust that He knows best.
Can such a faith still be found among the faithful in this current environment? Has the church been so shaped by the suspicions of the skeptics that the only thing that we are willing to give is that which we can do without? Are we never to suppose that God’s hand can be in something that asks so much of us to give to another?
The second text is found in the New Testament and tells of Paul’s dealings with the Corinthian church. No church gave Paul the trouble that Corinth did. There was always some problem of one kind or another. In fact, there is more written in two books that make up the Corinth text of First and Second Corinthians than all other epistles almost combined.
In First Corinthians chapter nine, Paul defends his apostleship among those who have questioned his authority. One of the things Paul talks at length about is his right to due compensation for the service that he has provided: Who serves as a solider at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of the fruit? Who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?
After a series of questions, Paul then makes one of the boldest statement in the entire Bible. In the same way the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living from the gospel, caring for Paul’s livelihood is put squarely on the shoulders of the church. Then, after building this wonderful case, Paul says something that no one could have anticipated: But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing this to secure any such rights now.
Paul’s point is this: I (Paul) am entitled to some things, and you do owe me, but I have decided to decline what is mine. I am saying ‘no, thank you.’ I am saying ‘keep it.’ I do not want it to become a stumbling block to the gospel that I proclaim. I will not make full use of my rights. I do this that I might win the weak, the lawless, the doubter, the opponents to everything that is good. I have learned how to say no thanks. I do this not just to win some, but I do this as a safeguard for myself. It is my way of bringing my body, with all of its desires, under control. I discipline my body and work to keep my desires in check, so that after having preached to others, I myself should not be disqualified.
There is always the danger lurking around every corner that the preacher who is not careful may become disqualified. We are called to bridle our passions, to walk worthy of our calling and to be an example to the flock.
There are times when, like Paul, we need to learn to say “No, thank you.” There is nothing that makes the enemy happier than to see a preacher be responsible for his/her own disqualification.
So here we have this strange tension for those of us who preach and those called to care for us and our families as we serve God and humanity. On one end, there is the story where a man asks for all that the widow had to give. On the other end, there is the story of a city and people with great wealth and the apostle says, Keep it, I do not want it, no, thank you.
It is in this tension were we labor to see the hand of God or the forces that are against God. It is in this tension that we will all be judged one day, both preacher and pew. That day, it will not matter what the press says, for God will have the last word.
May we all be found on the side of God and receive the rewards that are reserved for the faithful — “Well done, good and faithful servant” — whether we were called to give all or to say “no, thank you” and decline what was our right to claim.
Both groups will make up the kingdom of God.