UPA Reflections

My first sermon at UPA

July 1, 2012

“The Sermon of Your Life!”

When I prepare sermons, I ask myself how much the message will matter in ten years.  To be honest, I doubt that the words I share will be remembered at all, regardless of whether it took me five minutes, ten, twenty or, God help you, forty, to share them.  However, ten years from now I imagine you will remember the way my hand felt holding yours as we waited for the completion of your wife or husband’s open heart surgery.  Ten years from now you may remember the embarrassment you felt hearing that your pastor was arrested for protesting injustice.  Ten years from now we may be at the graduation of your grandson or daughter and you’ll remember all of those times we met over tea where we wondered how the kid would survive adolescence, let alone college!

I begin every sermon with the Pauline words “Grace and Peace to you,” but in ten years I doubt you’ll remember the words that followed “grace and peace.”  What you’ll remember are the ways my life embodied “grace” and “peace.”

Honestly, in ten years I doubt I’ll remember a fine theological point that you happened to make in a Bible study or the words you shared at the back door of the church, disagreeing with my sermon, or words of disagreement at a board room table.  What I will recall is the way your life of faith unfolded and the way your life speaks of Christ’s peace.

Jesus sent disciples out into the community to pronounce “Peace to this house.”  They were then expected to stay and offer healing actions—to reinforce the word “peace” with the action of “peace.”

When I think of Jesus sending disciples, I imagine a scene from the Broadway hit The Book of Mormon when the young missionaries gather to hear where they will be sent.  One young man dreams of being sent to Orlando!  He is sent to Africa.

United Methodist pastors receive assignments in a similar way.  Not long ago clergy would assemble at annual conference where they would hear that they were moving in three weeks to Africa, which for New England clergy was “Mars Hill Maine,” or to “Orlando,” the dream appointment.  Three weeks to pack-up and move!

I had more time to prepare for my move to United Parish of Auburndale.  When Martin, the District Superintendent, called offering the appointment, I was volunteering at the Ecotarium in Worcester.  Martin told me he was grateful I was willing to commute up to an hour away from home, because the cabinet was offering a church which was an hour away, in Auburndale.  He also told me he was aware I had signed a covenant resisting the United Methodist prohibition against gay marriage performed by United Methodist clergy.  I will disobey that prohibition.  The cabinet knew I should be appointed to a church where that stance would be welcome.   United Parish was just such a church.  Finally, he told me the cabinet had viewed a sample sermon of mine online and they believed my style would be welcome at the United Parish of Auburndale.  I met with Martin later that week and he reiterated the importance of theological integrity in this church.  “They are asking for a progressive theologian.  There are a lot of intelligent folk at United Parish and a simplistic, dogmatic approach will not do.”  Second, Martin shared that United Parish highly values good preaching.  “They have a long history of excellent preaching.  Ellis Johnson, one of New England Methodism’s finest preachers, served there.” Martin shared.   Some of you know that Martin is a tall, intimidating man.  He turned that big chair toward me, the bearings squeaking as he did, and Martin leaned closer to me, holding up two fingers.  “The search committee has already rejected two potential preachers.”  Then Martin held up one finger, “You will need to preach a sample sermon at that church, and Doug,” his finger lowered to point at me, “You need to preach the sermon of your life!”

Most pastors want to be known as great orators.  I suspect we all do.  We want to be known for saying the right word at the right time.    When a friend needs counsel, we want to share the right word.  When they need a new idea in the board room, we want to share the right words.  At weddings and funerals and anniversary speeches we want to say the right, remembered words.  A man named Randy offered a “Last Lecture” and his words were remembered.  They resonated.  People made a video and millions viewed it.  The Last Lecture became a book!  Preachers want their great sermons to be remembered in books!  An English teacher at the recent Wellesley commencement shared a speech in which he proclaimed that Wellesley students are not special.  It resonated!  It received two million hits on YouTube!  I want my sermons to receive two million hits on YouTube!

In the Hebrew lesson today we hear that Abraham journey in stages from his homeland and one day saw an oak tree and heard the voice of God, the voice of Wisdom, speaking through that tree.  The Oak of Moreh.  In the children’s movie Pocahontas, the young woman finds a wise old tree in the forest and the animated tree offers advice!  We clergy want to be giant trees of wisdom!  We want people to hear the very voice of God from us!

But here’s the problem:  Recently we have found that many of these tall trees of wisdom actually have shallow roots.

I was growing up in Louisiana when televangelist Jimmy Swaggart confessed that he “had sinned” and had an extramarital affair.  His lips professed one truth but his life professed another.

More recently the famous televangelist Creflo Dollar from Atlanta was accused by his daughter of domestic abuse.  His lips professed one truth but his life professed another.

No doubt advisors for Swaggart and Dollar counseled them after the scandals, leaning forward in their chairs, pointing fingers at them saying, “Jimmy, Creflo, this Sunday you need to preach the sermon of your life.”  But brothers and sisters, the people had already heard and seen the sermon of their lives.   The sermon of my life is just that, the sermon of my life and day to day choices.

Albert Schweitzer wrote:

“I wanted to be a doctor that I might be able to work without having to talk.  For years I had been giving myself out in words and it was a joy that I had the calling of theological teacher and preacher.  But this new form of activity I could not represent to myself as being talking about the religion of love, but only as an actual putting it into practice.”

When Albert was in school students were encouraged to offer kindness to a few families two times a year—something like sending a turkey at Thanksgiving and a ham at Easter.  But Albert felt this was inadequate, even as a young man.  What was needed was more consistent compassion.  Relationship.  Presence.  Years later when a missionary society pamphlet crossed his desk in Paris, Schweitzer accepted the generic invitation to the Congo.  He would not live among Africans as a word-toasting missionary but as a doctor.  A favorite song-writer name Kyle Matthews phrased Schweitzer’s decision this way:

I need to make my faith my argument

I need to make my faith my art

I need to make the sacred journey from my mind down to my heart

I know I’ll never be more eloquent than when I make my life my argument.

We’ll never be more eloquent than when we make our lives our argument.

You deserve good, eloquent preaching, and I will prepare carefully and study thoroughly so that the sermon is engaging.  When Jesus sent the seventy disciples out, they were expected to preach “Peace to this house” convincingly enough to be brought from the porch into the house!  My sermons must be convincing, I know that.  But I also know that I’ll never be more eloquent than when I make my life my argument.

You’ll never be more eloquent than when you make your life your argument.

Now, may the peace of God, which transcends human understanding, keep your mind and heart in Christ Jesus.


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