(Note: Today is William K. McElvaney’s 80th Birthday. This June also marks his 50th year in ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church. At Northaven this weekend, we celebrate both those milestones. Bill was the pastor of Northaven in the late 1960s, and is one of two emeritus pastors that call the church home, even to this day. He was, later in his career, also my seminary preaching professor; a point I allude to in the blog below…which is taken from the sermon of this past Sunday. You can hear an audio version here. It’s a great honor, and a continuing blessing, to call Bill a mentor and friend; and a no brainer to add him to my balcony people…because he’s already been there so long. EF)
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise one who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.”
And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell –and great was its fall!”
Matthew 7: 26-27
My brother-in-law’s mother used to own a house on the Gulf-side of Galveston Island. We visited her there once, for my nephew’s birthday party. It was a great house. It was as close beach front property as anybody I have personally known has ever owned.
The house was one row off of the water; meaning that it faced the water –there was a row of houses right in front of it– and backyard of those houses was the big, wide, beautiful blue Gulf of Mexico.
I remember noting to my brother-in-law how lucky it was to have a house that close to the water. And that’s he told me that…well…the house hadn’t actually always been THAT close to the water.
Seems once upon a time, the house was three streets back from the water. But then, fifteen or so years ago, one of those massive Gulf hurricanes had come through, and the house was now two streets from the water. The beachfront homes, street and all, had been completely washed into the sea.
Flash forward to the next big Gulf hurricane. Sure enough, the water won again (as the water always will), another row of houses was lost to the sea, and now my brother-in-law’s mother’s house was beach front property!
She stayed there a while longer. But not surprisingly, eventually she got tired of having to flee every storms, and she now lives in a relatively safer house on bay-side of the island.
I understand why she bought that house, years ago. It’s a little more of a stumper to figure why anyone bought it from her, knowing what they must surely know of what happened to those other houses. But, somebody did! (And, thank goodness!)
Jesus seemed to have a similar bit of puzzlement in today’s scripture. Why, Jesus says, would somebody hear the Word of God, and then not act on it? Because if you do that, you are like a person building your house on beach sand. The winds blow…the hurricanes come….and eventually the sea wins….and great is the fall of that kind of house.
When I was a kid, I went to a group called Young Life, now and then. I can still remember one night when the Young Life leader preached on this scripture. He went into a long diatribe about how God wants us to believe God’s word. He went on and on about how important it is to believe God’s word.
I got the clear sense he was talking about was believing certain principles; or believing them strongly enough. What God was calling us to do, this guy insisted, was believe in God’s word. That’s all we had to do.
And I can remember, even that night, being terrified that perhaps I didn’t believe strongly enough. Internally, I was filled with my own usual self doubts and criticism that I wondered, “And even I did believe…would I believe strongly enough to avoid a house on the sand?”
Or: “What if MY house was on the sand, and I didn’t even KNOW it?!!!”
(OH! The horror!!!)
It was not until much later that I finally reread this passage. Much to my surprise, I discovered that this passage wasn’t really about believing things at all. It was about HEARING and DOING God’s word.
Listen to the words again, with a little emphasis added:
“Everyone when who hears these words of mine and ACTS of them, will be like a wise one…”
That’s totally different than what I heard when I was growing up! The point of this scripture is not BELIEVING certain principles. The thing that seems to make a different to Jesus is not the HEARING of God’s word. Did you catch that? Both homeowners hear the word. The different between a house on rock and a house on sand, is ACTING on the word…
IN-acting the word of God…
DOING the word of God…
As I read and re-read this scripture this week, I remembered that this is the Sunday where we are celebrating together 50-years of Bill McElvaney’s ministry, and 80-years of his life.
And suddenly hit me, dear friends, that right before our eyes, we have someone who has spent an entire lifetime not simply being a hearer of the word, but also a doer.
Check out this picture from my own seminary graduation.
Almost twenty-years-ago now. That’s me on the right. That’s Bill on the left. It seems to me I’m the one who looks much worse for the wear. Bill pretty much looks exactly the same!!!
As you have heard me say many times before, Bill McElvaney was a mentor to me and my ministry long before I was appointed to this church. He was, and I am not kidding, my favorite professor at Perkins; for reasons that were not just academic, but also existential.
Especially in my first years at Perkins, I experienced a great deal of angst, shall we say, as I came to really understand the dominance of not only anglo power, but white male power, in our church and world.
It was Bill McElvaney –not as a teacher, but as a human being– who embodied for me the truth that you could be a white male from North Dallas, and still turn out OK.
Bill taught a class at Perkins called “Preaching the Social Gospel.” The semester I took that class, we students renamed it for him: “The Radical Preacher’s Class.” And the premise of that class –and it seems to me the premise of Bill’s life and ministry– is that it is not enough to simply be a hearer of the word. God calls us to be doers.
Which is what led Bill McElvaney, very early in his ministry, to join the struggle to integrate the Mesquite Schools. Bill reminded me just the other day that, while he was founding pastor of St. Stephens UMC in Mesquite, he and other members there joined in the struggle to see the schools of that town integrated. That was an edgy thing to be advocating for, in the early 1960s!
Being a doer of the word led Bill McElvaney to opposed the Vietnam War, becoming one of the first clergy in all of Dallas to publicly speak out against that conflict.
Being a doer of the word led Bill to become a teacher and seminary educator; he taught countless other students about becoming not only hearers and preachers, but also doers.
Being a doer of the word led Bill to support the poor in Central America during the late 1980s
Being a doer of the word led Bill to be a passionate voice for change in the UMC, on full GLBT inclusion in the church.
And Bill entered the modern cultural Zeitgeist when he was featured on The Colbert Report for his opposition to the Bush Library at SMU. Bill says he never had more people mention press coverage he’s received than did that episode. He’s been in the New York Times before, the Morning News…dozens of TV appearances. But nothing prepared him for the acclaim for being on Colbert!!(Welcome to the brave new world of new media…)
But let me say another important word hear: The world will not always be happy to have you be a doer of the word.
Upstairs, on the second floor or our sanctuary, just outside these doors in the hallway, there is a historical timeline of Northaven’s history. One of my favorite pictures in that timeline is of Bill McElvaney and others in downtown Dallas, protesting the Vietnam War.
(I will see if I can get a jpeg copy and upload it here…EF)
The picture was taken just after counter-protestors have doused them with red paint. And the look in Bill’s face is simply priceless. It’s the look of young man, wondering just what he’s gotten himself into. It’s a look of recognition that doing the word has a cost.
And friends, to any and all of us who are involved in the major social struggles of our day, and engaging in those struggles through the Christ gives, let us remember that doing the word almost always has cost. Doing the word can get you splashed with red paint. Or worse….
In Bill’s writings, he often talks about the “disturbing love of God” that compels us to act anyway, despite the costs. It is God’s primary and foundational love for us that disturbs us enough to make us not only hearers but also doers.
Here is a passage from Bill’s book, “Good News is Bad News is Good News,” where he says:
“Thank God the gospel has interfered with my life in countless ways. When I have sought security, the gospel has pointed me to loving risk for others. When my vested interests have blinded me, the gospel has beckoned me to open my eyes to the world beyond my own interests. When I get hooked on status and prestige, the gospel holds before me the picture of a crucified Savior…..the Roto-Rooter churns through the channels of my spirit, clearing and cleansing the impediments that clog up the life of faith….God’s disturbing love cannot be distinguished from that boundless and everlasting love in which we live and die and have our being.”
One final story about Bill. And for me, it’s the crystallization of when he became a mentor to me. I remember the exact moment it happened. It was on the campus of Perkins, in the breezy courtyard between Kirby Hall and Perkins Chapel. I remember the date too. It was late November 1989.
What had just happened, in late November 1989, was that six Jesuit priests –scholars at the UCA in San Salvador, six priests, their housekeeper and her daughter– had been taken from their quarters in the middle of the night, pushed face down in a nearby courtyard, and executed.
Those of us who have been to El Salvador on mission with our church have actually gone to that site to pay our homage, and to remember their martyrdom as doers and hearers of the world.
But on that November day, as I walked past Perkins Chapel, on my way to somewhere, Dr. McElvaney was coming from the other direction, and stopped to talk for just a moment. He was clearly flustered. He was quite agitated. Tears were streaming down his cheeks. He had learned of the murders. And he was trying to grapple with what they meant, for academics everywhere, but also for our world.
He was angry. He was confused. He was deeply deeply sad. We just chatted for a moment. And then he left.
I had never before seen a seminary professor cry. I had never before seen a seminary professor so deeply touched by the deaths of people far across the world.
And I remember thinking to myself in that moment about how beautiful it was that this Dallas professor had such a connection with God’s children around the world that he would be so deeply moved by their deaths. And I remember thinking that, even with the tears and outward weakness of that moment, that he was incredibly strong.
When you are a doer of the word, your whole world may get turned upside down now and then. The world may break your heart.
But know this: in loving the world, as God first loves us –in doing the word, as Jesus commands– even if it feels like a life on shifting sand, there is bedrock beneath you.