A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
In the Army of the Lord
August 1, 2019
It struck way too close to home for me. I saw it first on social media, then in the newspaper – a minister was brazenly killed by a gunman while doing his work of ministry just a few blocks from our office. That was too close for comfort already. But his name struck me even more closely. “Rev. Sheldon ‘Sarge’ Stoudemire.” I did a double-take, as you can imagine. He wore the nickname “Sarge” proudly; his picture in the newspaper shows him with a broad smile, sporting a military-style beret. He was in every sense a soldier – a former Army Ranger, and a soldier for Jesus.
When the Lord calls us, says Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he bids us, “Come and die.” We know, it’s just a metaphor. But is it? Rev. Stoudemire was doing his work in the Lord’s service when he was slain. He had been a street preacher for years, after having first served as a pastor of a traditional congregation. And he worked several night shifts each week at the shelter of Northside Common Ministries, reaching out to make a difference in the lives of young people on the margins. And one of them thanked him by putting a bullet in his chest.
A few years ago our presbytery publicly decried the rise of criminal gun violence, and the proliferation of legal and illegal lethal weaponry that underlies it. Since we published that proclamation, our community has experienced many more horrific gun deaths. Rev. Stoudemire’s death hits especially hard because he was just doing what we ministers do, and was doing it within shouting distance of our office. Addressing this violence is not just an academic issue for us. Still, we all too easily are lulled into looking the other way, rather than remaining vigilant in our war against gun violence.
Rev. Stoudemire knew well the danger of the streets, yet he continued to walk them, publicly telling the good news of the Gospel, offering hope and help to those who needed it most. The community mourns his loss greatly, as he boldly went where many fear to go. He was a front-line soldier in urban ministry, and his absence leaves a giant hole behind.
I have sometimes wondered for myself, or for the church I serve, who would notice if we were suddenly gone? Have we been involved enough in neighborhood presence that our absence would distress our neighbors?
Jesus calls us to go out – into the world – with the good news of the Gospel. (Matthew 28:18-20) The church’s mission is not to get people to darken its doors, but to darken the doors of people. This is not meant to minimize the importance of worship; it is the battle staging ground for the Lord’s army. In worship we receive our orders, but it’s outside the doors that we execute them.
I am well aware that the image of “the Lord’s army” is not popular with Presbyterians these days. We long ago excised “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “The Son of God Goes Forth to War” from our hymnals, rightly concerned that the Gospel not be construed as a call to use force. Violence has no place in the church’s mission toolkit.
Yet there is something about the work of Christian mission that has called forth images of warfare from the church’s earliest days. Ephesians 6:10-18 urges us to clothe ourselves in God’s armor. Paul sometimes refers to his ministry companions as “fellow-soldiers” (e.g. Philippians 2:25), and the early church considered the image of a soldier in the army as an apt analogy for church leaders. (2 Timothy 2:1-4) Military imagery is especially prominent in the apocalyptic book of Revelation.
The truth is that those who proclaim the Gospel always have a fight on their hands. It’s not a battle against “flesh and blood,” but a spiritual battle for allegiance. Bob Dylan spoke to that with his well-known song, “You Gotta Serve Somebody.” In a world that revolves around self-serving, the Gospel asks us to serve others first, and in so doing to serve God rather than ourselves. It is an uphill battle for us both internally and externally. It’s what Jesus meant by asking us to lay down our lives for the sake of the Gospel. Only in so doing do we really gain life. (Mark 8:35)
Rev. Stoudemire considered laying down his life more important than preserving it. He laid it down daily for years, before laying it down finally last Saturday. Thanks be to God for his example and witness of what it means to be a true soldier in the Lord’s army.
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister