This past week Bunny Ludtke gave me a copy of a sermon that Fenton had given in 1962 at his church in Michigan. Fenton had been cleaning out papers for the upcoming shredding and had happened upon this sermon. He had been asked by the Rev. McKay Taylor to preach. Reading his sermon, I was impressed with how Fenton encouraged the congregation to embrace change. The church had already done this with its modern architecture. He even encouraged the use of Jazz Music.
After serving in the military during World War II, Fenton was a reporter then the city editor for the Pontac Daily News. He later worked for the Associated Press office in Detroit before taking a job with Campbell Ewald, an advertising agency in Detroit. In the small world of the church, I was shocked to discover when I moved here that Fenton had worked with Kensinger Jones, who was a member of my previous church in Michigan. Sadly, Ken Jones had died a few weeks before I made the connection. Fenton worked for others agencies and retired in 1989 from Chrysler. I hope you enjoy his sermon. -jeff
THE CARE AND FEEDING OF CHRISTIANITY
A sermon by Fenton A. Ludtke
Northminster Presbyterian Church
May 20, 1962
Scripture: John 21:14-19
We are, as you know, this morning within the period of the 40 days after the Resurrection during which Jesus appeared to His disciples.
The passage from John you have just heard was an account of His third appearance.
As you recall, it was preceded by the story of the disciples going fishing. After they had failed to catch any fish, Jesus appeared on the shore and bid them to cast their nets on the right side of their boat. The result was a catch of some 153 fish, and new evidence of the power and presence of their Lord.
This event as related in the New Testament had especial meaning for the disciples when it happened. For, as you can imagine, they were completely disorganized.
Jesus had been crucified. Their leader was gone. How could they poor men be expected to rise to the void left by His death?
Where could they begin? Would people listen? How to make the start?
Well, hadn’t He told them?
Yes. He had told them to keep His Commandments. He had told them to teach His word.
But you can almost imagine the disciples, saying, “Sure He told us what to do, but we never really thought we’d ever have to do it.”
As John related in the Scriptures, Jesus asked of Peter, “If you love me, then feed my sheep.”
What did He mean?
And what does this story of Jesus’ third appearance mean to us?
I would like to suggest some answers. And maybe these answers can be found in investigating whether we have been creative enough in our thinking about, and our love of, God.
As undoubtedly you have observed, the word “creative,” or “creativity,” is enjoying new imminence today. We have creative advertising, creative salesmen, creative child care, creative research. Of course, we have had advertising, and salesmen, and child care, and research for many years, but, suddenly, with the flick of a word, they are “creative.” Sounds good, doesn’t it?
To be creative, though, is not to be isolated within a group of people especially able to express themselves with brush or lens . . . or words . . . or hammer hitting harp strings. To me there is more to this word. It asks of anyone embracing it in act or deed, that they change. That they do something, say something, believe something, in a new and more meaningful way.
Of course, all of us are changing . . . almost every day. We are either growing up . . . or, as we say, our bones are settling. But this kind of change is what you might call “developmental.” It is change that is expected. Inevitable.
There is, however, a different kind of change.
It is the kind of change that is the most difficult to make for it asks of you to be willing to make the effort to accept a new equation, a departure from terms or procedures you have been accustomed to It is not inevitable change.
Well now, if all of us accept the idea that change can be good for us, how can we do it in our relationship with God?
In other words, is there such a thing as creative Christianity?
Well, there would seem to be two categories of creative Christianity. One would be physical .and the other, spiritual.
We can look at evidence of physical change in our churches today. Look at the stone and steel and glass combined in what may be called the “contemporary look” of many of them.
Our own church, when it is completed, may well be one of the most significant contributions to church architecture in our nation, or for that matter, the world.
Perhaps such a glowing testimonial to the design of our church sounds a bit provincial, or something a Sinclair Lewis type of town booster would say. I think not.
For such a prediction of our church’s architectural merit is based on the fact that its architect… Minuro Yamasaki . . . is now one of America’s most highly respected architectural craftsmen. Already his fame is spreading around tile world. Perhaps you read that the Science building he designed for Seattle is considered, by a goodly number, to be the most gifted contemporary work in that city’s current world’s fair.
But, someone might say… “these so-called contemporary churches aren’t my idea of a physical church. They are cold. Give me the old Gothic with its spires reaching like fingers to the sky. that’s what a church ought to be like.”
While it is well that we respect such an attitude, it is interesting to reflect upon the history of Gothic design in the building of churches. Gothic architecture developed in Europe in the Middle Ages and was quickly identified as the “flamboyant style.”
It was the contemporary of its day. As the World Book reports:
“Places of worship are associated with old architectural styles in the minds of many people. Yet the people who built the great Romanesque and Gothic churches were the modern builders of their day. It is often claimed that the vitality of their work lies in the close relationship between the building and the era that produced it. If this is true, the buildings of any religious body today should be as modern for their time as were the medieval buildings.”
It is interesting to note, too, that the physical change represented by the growth and acceptance of Gothic resulted, at least in part, because it represented a change in the spiritual feelings within the church.
In feudal times, religion had been mainly in the hands of the monks. During the Gothic period, however, religion became a thing of the people, and the lofty arches and towers best expressed how they felt.
Now another example of this physical change in churches today can be found in music.
We know, of course, that Christian hymns owe their beginnings to the old religious songs of the Hebrews. Many of the earliest hymns were written in Greek and Latin, but with the coming of the Protestant Reformation, the language changed from Latin, to the language of the people and the most famous hymn of this period we sang this morning.
It is Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” This powerful and stirring hymn became known as “The Battle Hymn of the Reformation.”
Now, a rather cursory investigation of the hymnal we use in Northminster seems to indicate, at least to me, that there are not as many people worshipping God in music and lyric today. Many of our hymns date back hundreds of years. Not too many are what you would call the work of contemporary man.
Very possibly, this is an area in which the creative Christian could investigate the suitability of physical change. For if the contemporary design of our church buildings reflects modern man and his love of God, would it be improper for the music he sings or listens to within his church also to reflect modern man and his love of God?
Wilson Wade, professor of religion at Dartmouth College, believes chance should be considered. In fact, his ideas may be too contemporary for many people.
He would introduce Jazz into churches.
Now, rest assured, Professor Wade is not talking about Elvis Presley’s “You’re Nothing But a Hound Dog,” and he most certainly does not commend to your ear something for twisting by Chubby Checkers.
He is talking about concert hall jazz. The kind that in its truest form has been called the only art form America has contributed to the world.
As he stated in “Christian Century”:
“If jazz offers any understanding of the conditions that inform the contemporary image of man, it is in an understanding we can experience only through becoming involved with the world of jazz — the world of 20th century man. The world of Palestrina or Bach or Brahms still maintains a reality — the reality, namely of our heritage. But it is the reality of this present era that cries out for our understanding and participation.”
Professor Wade continues:
“Jazz echoes the sorrows, the blues, the frustrations of modern man, but it also rejoices in the exhilarations of split-level living. And always, through the harshness and chaos of jazz, there is a continual swinging. If jazz doesn’t swing, we say it just isn’t jazz. As the Jesuit Father Kennard, instructor in philosophy at Loyola University in Los Angeles, says, ‘to swing is to affirm.'”
When I read this story, you might be interested to know that I wrote Professor Wade and asked him what particular jazz he was thinking of. He wrote back, Dave Brubeck, the contemporary jazz pianist.
Jazz in our churches? Will it ever happen?
Well, of course, it has. Very recently it happened in a church in West Germany. As I recall it resulted in standing room only. And it has happened in other churches in our country, granted very few.
But if you are saying to yourself, “Well, I certainly would never want such music played in my church,” then perhaps you will find interest in the observations of Elwyn Wienandt in Christian Century last March. His article appeared several months after Professor Wade’s, and, in part, stated:
“If the idea of intruding a contemporary and popular musical style into Christian worship were truly new and without precedent there might be cause for alarm, but the fact is that the practice is strongly founded on historical patterns,”
Mr. Wienandt goes on to tell us that the earliest great assault upon sacred music came in the 13th century with the development of a musical form called the motet, a polyphonic piece usually performed at vespers in the Roman Catholic service . . . and he adds that throughout the centuries of sacred music, man has taken popular secular music and moulded it to the use of the church.
So, after all, maybe Professor Wade shouldn’t be considered too controversial.
I think the important point here is, that in the cases of Gothic versus Contemporary design, and most of our church music versus contemporary music, the older forms were the tradition-breakers of centuries ago. You may prefer Gothic dud hymns penned in the 19th century, but remember; a’ time they represented, change.
Should not the voice of today be heard?
Well, we have been considering one of two forms of creative Christianity. It is, as we termed it, physical change in the church. The second form, as we mentioned earlier, might be called spiritual change.
What do we mean by spiritual change?
Does this mean re-writing the Bible to suit modern man’s good or evil purposes? Most certainly not.
Does this mean some kind of down-grading of God in our personal lives? Definitely not.
On the contrary, it would ask of us a re-reading of the Bible . . . and it would ask of us an up-grading of God in our personal lives.
Spiritual change, you see, is something that must come over you, not something you overlook by self-satisfaction in your relationship with your fellow man and God.
Spiritual change asks that if you are to become a creative Christian you must create something within you that did not exist in the same form before.
In simple truth, spiritual change asks that you, not your physical church, change.
Of course, spiritual change asks self-examination, too. It asks that you examine what you do, how you do it, even why you do it, with the basis of evaluation your relationship with God.
What questions can you ask yourself in this self-examination?
Here are some suggestions.
Are you self-conscious about loving God?
If you are married, may I submit that undoubtedly one of the most moving moments in your life, came when you gave and received in return what I believe are the greatest three words ever put together in a phrase:
“I love you.”
Can you remember when you first said these words? Were you afraid to say them, for fear the person you loved would say something like, “Well, thank you, I’m awfully fond of you, too.”
Sure you remember. And chances are that you can remember the day, the hour, where you were (though the world may have been spinning crazily)… maybe you even remember that you were wearing a floppy, wide-brimmed straw hat that kept falling off, or you had on your new searsucker jacket, and you discovered a hole in the pocket…
You can remember that once you had pledged your love once you had said the three words, you suddenly knew the beauty of loving someone more than yourself.
How could you forget?
But . . . have you ever really told God you love him?
Or are you too self-conscious? Or have you never thought of doing it?
Another question you can ask yourself is, do you bring your real self to church on Sunday?
Or do you put on a kind of “Sunday Best” behavior, only to upon leaving church and arriving home, take it off and hang it at the far end of your closet until same time, same station next Sunday morning?
Is it important to be seen in church, or to see in church?
Be hard on yourself when you ask this for if we do not bring our real selves into church, is there hope that we shall take the real message out of church?
I don’t know what kind of grade you’ll give yourself on this self-examination. Only you and God will know. I know I won’t tell my score.
But once you have taken this test, what can you do about the results?
If you will permit me, I should like to suggest some instructions for your care and feeding of Christianity . . . for, you see, to me that is what Jesus was doing in this third appearance to his disciples after the Resurrection.
“Peter, do you love me?” is like Jesus asking the very same question of you.
“Yea, you know I love you, Lord,” is like you answering Him,
“Then feed my sheep,” is like the Lord telling you do “Follow Him”… to be what you profess to be, to be a true Christian…
You could almost paraphrase President Kennedy’s stirring call to our nation upon the occasion of his inauguration:
“Ask not what God can do for you, but what you can do for God.
But where to begin? And when? And how?
You can begin here. You can begin in the next few minutes. And here are the instructions .
You can begin by being honest with yourself… you are neither as good as you think… or as bad as you fear. Take not the counsel of fear… and fear not the counsel of your heart.
You can begin by smiling at a stranger in church, by reaching out your hand to touch his by reaching out your heart to move his.
You can begin by saying hello to a stranger… don’t back away or try to avoid his glance…. by making others comfortable, you shall know comfort…
You can begin by resolving to cleanse yourself of prejudice it is a vial of acid that devours the fabric of fellowship in God. Be understanding of people and things and ideas other than your own.
You can begin by being compassionate, a word so seldom used, so seldom applied in our lives, be forgiving of those you believe to have hurt you, or merely ignored you.
You can begin by being self-sacrificing. If this one is hard. At least it is for me. But, would you miss one second for a smile… one minute for a kindness… one hour with your Bible? “Peter, if you love me, feed my sheep . Do you really love God? Then care and feed your Christianity.
Our Father .
So often it seems we come to you asking your help. We ask with trembling phrases that often begin with such words as, “Lord, if you will only help us this time, we’ll never, never.
Indeed, we are truly your children . . . for so often we seem only to ask things of you… so seldom do we give in return.•
Now, at this moment, would you listen to each of us as we tell you . . . in our own words of how we feel about you?
Dear Father… may we make ourselves more worthy of your love… and may we ever be aware of what we are saying when we pray, as we have been taught, by saying, “Our Father Who Art in Heaven…