Monday, December 19, 2011

When the Roll is Called Down Here

This is my favorite sermon about the church.  I first heard it in college and I've often used it while teaching the book of Romans.  The preacher is the great Fred Craddock, who delivered this message sometime in the 1980's (1987 sticks in my head for some reason).  The text is Romans 16:1-16, a "list" of names to which Paul sends his greetings.

Here's the message:

"When the Roll is Called Down Here"
by Fred Craddock

I hope you will not feel guilty if your heart was not all-aflutter during the reading of the text.  It’s not very interesting.  It’s a list, a list of names, a list of strange names.  I always tell my students in preaching class, “When you’re preaching from the biblical text, avoid the lists.  They’re deadly.  Don’t preach from the lists.”
It seems that Paul is calling the roll.  That’s a strange thing in itself.  I have never worshipped in a church in which any one got up and called a roll.  It could be very dull.  Yet, it could be interesting in a way.


Sometimes, calling the roll is not all that bad.  Last December I was summoned to Superior Court, DeKalb County, Georgia, to serve on the jury.  On Monday morning at nine o’clock, two hundred forty of us formed a pool out of which the jurors for civil and criminal cases would be chosen.
The deputy clerk of the superior court stood and called the roll- 240 names.  She did not have them in alphabetical order.  You had to listen.  And while I was listening, I began to listen.
There were two Bill Johnsons.  One was black, and one was white, and they were both Bill Johnson.
There was a man named Clark who answered when the clerk read, “Mrs. Clark.”
He said, “Here.”
She looked up and said, “Mrs. Clark.”
“Mrs. Clark.”
Then he stood up and said, “Well, I thought the letter was for me, and I opened it.”
The clerk said, “We summoned Mrs. Clark.”
“Well,” he said, “I’m here.  Can I do it?  She doesn’t have any interest in this sort of thing.”
The clerk said, “Mr. Clark, how do you know?  She doesn’t even know she’s been summoned.”
This roll call was pretty good.  There was a man whose name I wrote down phonetically because I couldn’t spell it.  His name was Zurfell Lichenstein.  I remember it because they went over it five or six times, mispronouncing it.  He insisted it be pronounced correctly and finally stood in a huff and said, “I see no reason why I should serve on a jury in a court that can’t pronounce my name.”
The woman next to me said, “Lichenstein.  I wonder if he’s a Jew.”
I said, “Well, I don’t know.  Could be.  Does it matter?”
“I am German.  My name is Zeller.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter. That was forty years ago.”
“He and I could be seated next to each other in a jury.”
“Well, you were probably just a child when all of that happened years ago.”
“I was ten years old.  I visited Grandmother.  She lived about four miles from Buchenwald.  I smelled the odor.”
Calling roll.
A person could get interested in Paul’s roll call, even if no more than to say, I wonder how Paul knew all those people since he had never been to the church.  I wonder if you could buy mailing lists back then? 
After all, he wants to raise money in Rome for his Spanish mission, and he is politically wise.  He tells this one, “Hello,” and that one, “Hello.”  Some scholars think this doesn’t even belong in Romans.  He has never been to Rome.
I could get interested in the roll call because it gives a sociological profile of the membership of the church.  Now I don’t expect you to remember, but in the list there is a husband and wife, Aquila and Priscilla.  There’s a man and his mother, Rufus and his mother.  There is a brother and sister, Nereus and his sister.  There are brothers, Andronicus and Junias.  There are sisters, Tryphaena and Tryphosa.  There is an old man, Epeanetus.  Isn’t that an interesting profile of the church?  There’s a single woman, Mary.  There’s a single man, Herodion.  Not a lot of nuclear family there at all except as Christ has called them together.  It’s an interesting list…sort of.  Well, not very.

But for Paul it’s not a list.  He’s packing his stuff.  He’s in the home of Gaius in Corinth who is host to Paul and host to the church in Corinth.  Paul is getting ready to go west to Italy and to Spain.  He’s about to move to a new parish, one far away.  He is now about fifty-nine or sixty years old.  He feels he has one more good ministry in him.  Most churches don’t want a person fifty-nine years old.  But those churches had no choice because Paul started his own, and he wants to have one other ministry because he got a late start.  He was probably about thirty-five when he started.
He doesn’t have much to pack – his coat, and his books, and a few other things.  And while he is throwing things away to trim down the load for packing and moving, Paul comes across some notes and some correspondence.  He sits down among the boxes and begins to remember.  So don’t call it a list.
You’ve done it yourself.  When my wife and I finished our service at the student church when in seminary, our last Sunday there they gave us a gift.  It was a quilt some of the women of the church had made, and they stitched into the top of the quilt the names of all the church members.  And every time we’d move, we’d come across that quilt.  We would spread it out on the bed, and we’d start remembering.

We remembered something about Chester, who persuaded the elders to vote against my raise.  There’s Mary and John who put new tires on our car.  There’s Roy, very quiet, never said anything.  There is his wife Marie.  There is this marvelous woman who lived with that man who drank and became violent, and yet she was always faithful and pleasant.  He was dying with cancer when we went.  My first funeral there, you remember. 

And this is the way we go over the quilt.
Don’t call it a list.  Paul didn’t call it a list:
Aquila and Priscilla, they risked their necks for me.  Andronicus and Junias, we were in jail together.  Shoot, they’re great Christians.  There’s Mary.  Mary worked hard.  She was there when everybody else quit.  She’s the one who always said, “Now, Paul, you go on home.  I’ll put things up.  I’ll put the hymnals away, and I’ll pick up all the papers and straighten the chairs.  You go on home.  You’re tired.”
“Well, Mary, you’re tired too.”
“Yes, Paul, but you’ve got to ride a donkey across Asia tomorrow.  You go on.  I’ll pick up here.”  Mary worked hard.
Epaenetus, the first person converted under my preaching, and I didn’t sleep a wink that night saying, “Thank God, finally somebody heard.”  The first one to respond to the gospel.  What a marvelous day that was.
Tryphaena and Tryphosa, obviously twins.  You hear it, don’t you? In the names?  Tryphaena and Tryphosa.  They always sat on this side, and they both wore blue every Sunday.  I never knew them apart really.  One of them had a mole on her cheek, but I didn’t know if it was Tryphaena or Tryphosa.  I never did get them straight.
And Rufus.  Tell Rufus hello, and tell his mother hello because she’s my mother too.
Some woman earned from this apostle the title “mother.”  Can’t you see her, this woman able to be mother to Paul?  He probably stayed in their home.  She was a rather large woman, always wore an apron.  A lot of things stuffed in the pocket of the apron.  Hair pulled back in a bun.  Fixed a good breakfast.  Paul said, “I’m sorry.  I can’t stay.  I have to be on my way.”
“Sit down and eat your breakfast.  I don’t care if you are an apostle.  You’ve got to eat.”
Tell my mother hello.

This is not a list.
I remember when they brought the famous list to Atlanta.  The workers set it up in a public place, block after block, to form a long wall of names.  Vietnam names.
Some of us looked at it like it was a list of names.   Others went over closer.  Some walked slowly down the column.   There was the woman who went up and put her finger on a name, and she held a child up and put the child’s hand on a name.  There was a woman there who kissed the wall at a name.  There were flowers lying beneath the wall.
Don’t call it a list.  It’s not a list.
In fact, these names in Romans 16 are, for Paul, extremely special because even though he says “Hello,” what he really is saying is “Good-bye.”  He’s going to Rome, he says.  But before he goes to Rome he has to go to Jerusalem.  He’s going with the offering, and he’s going into a nest of hostility.  So at the end of chapter fifteen, he says to these people, “Pray with me.  Sunagonisomai.  Agonize with me that I won’t be killed in Jerusalem, that the saints will accept the money in Jerusalem, that I’ll get to come back and be with you.  Please, pray.”
These are not just names.

Would you write these words?  “I thank my God for all my remembrance of you.”  Then write a name.  You choose the name.  You remember the name.  Write another name and another name and another name.
Before I married and was serving a little mission in the Appalachians, I moved down to a little village on Watts Barr Lake between Chattanooga and Knoxville.  It was the custom in that church at Easter to have a baptismal service, and it was held in Watts Barr Lake on Easter evening at sundown.
Out on a sand bar, I stood with the candidates for baptism.  After they were immersed, the candidates moved out of the water, changed clothes in little booths constructed of hanging blankets, then went to the fire in the center.
Last of all, I went over, changed clothes, and went to the fire where the little congregation was gathered, singing and cooking supper.
Once we were all around the fire, (this is the ritual of the tradition) Glen Hickey, always Glen, introduced the new people.  He gave their names, where they lived and their work.  And then the rest of us formed a circle around them while they stayed warm at the fire.
The next part of the ritual was that each person around the circle gave her or his name and said,
“My name is …and if you ever need somebody to do washing and ironing, call on me.”

“My name is …If you ever need anybody to chop wood, call on me.”

“My name is …If you ever need anybody to babysit, call on me.”

“My name is …If you ever need anybody to repair your house, call on me.”

“My name is …If you ever need anybody to sit with the sick, call on me.”

“My name is …If you ever need a car to go to town, call on me.”

And around the circle we went.
We ate.  Then we had a square dance.  Finally at a time they knew (but I didn’t know), Percy Miller, with thumbs in his bibbed overalls, would stand up and say, “It’s time to go.”  And everybody left.  He lingered behind, and with his big shoe kicked sand over the dying fire.
After my first experience of that, he saw me standing there, still.  He looked at me and said, “Craddock, folks don’t ever get any closer than this.”
In that little community, they have a name for that.  I’ve heard it in other communities too.  In that community, their name for that kind of ritual is “church.”  They call that “church.”
Have you written any names?  Do you have a name or two?  Keep the list.  Keep the list because to you it’s not a list.  In fact, the next time you move, keep that.  Even if you have to leave your car, and your library, and your furniture, and your typewriter, and everything else, take that list with you.  In fact, when your ministry has ended and you leave the earth, take it with you.
I know.  I know.  When you get to the gate, St. Peter’s going to say, “Now, look, you went into the world with nothing.  You’re going to come out of it with nothing.  Now, what do you have there?”

“Well, it’s just some names.”
“Well, let me see it.”

“Well, now this is just some names of folk I worked with and folk who helped me.”

“Well, let me see it.”

“Well, this is just a group of people that, if it weren’t for them I’d have never made it.”

“I want to see it.”

Finally, you give it to him, and he smiles.  He says, “I know all of them.  In fact, on my way here to the gate I passed them.  They were painting a great big sign to hang over the street, and it said, ‘Welcome home.’”

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