Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Sermons and the Spirit

Recently, as I prepared a sermon about the role of the Holy Spirit, I found myself thinking about how the Spirit works in the process of the preacher preparing and presenting the sermon and in the hearers hearing the sermon. While I work hard at being true to the biblical text I choose, I have learned to accept some unavoidable truths. Sometimes, I miss the mark. Often people hear something other than I preach.

Sometimes a sermon can deal with a whole text as chosen by the preacher. Often, it cannot. In some cases, the chosen text is the sermon or, at least, it shapes the core of the sermon. Any chosen text should inform the sermon; though all preachers, this one included, is capable of choosing a text and springing forth from it, which is not always bad.

In both college and seminary preaching classes, I was taught better. The preacher must be true to the text! In my mind, I can still hear Dr. Ham Kimzey saying that to our class. He was critical of those preachers who chose a text and then “sprang forth from it.” For the most part I agree with my former teacher, who, by the way, was the first honest and consistant liberal Baptist I met. Unlike some liberals, he never hid his light under a bushel basket. He let it shine. As a result, fundamentalist-leaning students sometimes held prayer meetings on his front lawn. Dr. Kimzey thanked them saying, “I need the prayers and you need the practice.” I digress . . .

. . . but that is my point. Spring forth is not always bad. What is always bad is misusing one’s text, using it to say what it does not and cannot say.

Sometimes a text leads one in a direction never intended by the author . . . but perhaps not unintended by God who inspired the author/s and inspires the reader and preacher. Maybe it is a Spirit thing.

It works the same for those who listen to sermons. I am constantly amazed by what others hear in my sermons. Often what they hear is not at all what I said. Did I miscommunicate? In some cases, I am sure I did; but in other cases, I’m not so sure. In some cases, I have come to believe that the Spirit moves in mysterious ways to take the preacher’s sermon as preached and cause it to speak to the needs of those who hear. Surely, in more than some of the cases, for the Spirit do this, there must be some reinterpreting so that the hearer may hear what she needs in and through and in spite of what the preacher actually said.

I don’t always like that what people sometimes hear in my sermon is not what I said; but I have seen lives altered in positive ways by what the hearer heard in what I did not say.

The presence and work of the Spirit in preacher and hearer makes coming to church both safer and more edifying than it might otherwise be. Thus, I pray:

Come, Holy Spirit; dark is the hour.
We need Your filling,
Your love and Your mighty power.
Move now among us; stir us we pray.
Come, Holy Spirit; revive the church today.

Monday, January 26, 2015

A Fish Story

Although it has been a while since I have seen a critique of children’s fairy tales, I am always amused when I do.  Someone occasionally points out how violent and cruel many fairy tales are. This leads to concerns that those poor children forced to hear these tales are being taught to be cruel and violent. 
I’m confused by most of this.  I grew up hearing and reading fairy tales and today own a copy of all of Grimm’s fairy tales.  I am not a pacifist, but I am a long way from being violent or cruel.  Maybe I lacked sufficient cognitive ability to understand these violent and cruel tales.
I also grew up reading the Bible, having received my first when I was five years old—four months before my sixth birthday.  The Bible, unlike the fairy tales, gave me some problems.  It starts off with lies told to God and a brother murdering another brother, and it goes downhill after that.  Violence and cruelty is everywhere, often instigated by God.  Given how much violence and cruelty there is in the Bible, should we prohibit children from reading it?

The problem I had with the Bible was the result of how the Bible was presented.  What I heard from preachers and Sunday school teachers was that everything in the Bible was factually true.  No one ever said that to me regarding fairy tales.  Fairy tales were stories.  There were lessons to be learned from the stories, but they were stories.  The big, bad woof was not disguised as my grandma and waiting just up the road for me. 

Okay, not all the violent and cruel stuff in the Bible is just a story.  Some of it is all too real.  But might it not be helpful for us to acknowledge to children, not to mention adults, that some of the events in the Bible are stories—stories told to get across a very important point?

The saga of Jonah, the reluctant prophet is a case in point.  As a child I was enthralled by it and deeply bothered.  God had a mission for Jonah which Jonah didn’t want to do, and therefore he ran from God.  God, in order to get Jonah, causes a storm (that’s how I understood it) that threatened the lives of an entire ship’s crew.  To save their lives, the crew was willing to kill Jonah.  A big fish swallowed, but did not digest, Jonah and three days later vomited him onto the shore. Jonah did God’s bidding and was mad about it the whole time.  Afterwards, Jonah pouted under a bush that grew up overnight. 

While enthralled by the thought of a man surviving for three days in a fish’s belly, I was bothered by the story that presented God as willing to put other men at peril to get this one man and of men so cruel as to be willing to sacrifice a life to save their own skins.  Even to a child, such images seemed contrary to the image of the God revealed in Jesus.

Then one day college Professor Ham Kimzy said of Jonah, “This is a story.  The truth is not in the facts but in the story.”  With this realization, Jonah took on new interest and importance.

Read the story of Jonah. Skip the sermon, and learn the truth—God has a mission of redemption and invites us to join him in the mission.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Thirty-five Years and Counting

Even as I write it, it seems impossible . . . thirty-five years ago, on Halloween, Donna and I moved from Mount Eden, Kentucky, to Eminence.  On November 1, 1979, I officially became the pastor of Eminence Baptist Church.

Conversation with the church had begun in the summer of 1979.  In the prior months, I had talked with and had contact with several pulpit committees.  None had been a good experience.  Issues of heresy within the Southern Baptist Convention were once again being raised.  Pulpit committees had key questions they used to sort out the “liberals.”  Smart “liberals” were using double-speak—say what the committee wants to hear while remaining true to your own beliefs.  I had played the game, thus skirting issues about biblical inerrancy, salvation, Communion, and women in ministry.  Double-speak was not my way.  So I quit, deciding that a church would either take me for who I was or I would find another way to minister and live.  It was the best decision I ever made.

When the pulpit committee from Eminence Baptist Church contacted me, I was honest.  That committee was chaired by Bob Moore.  He was joined by four other men: Ben Coomes, Andrew Johnson, Edward Mitchell, and Doug Payton.  As conversations continued, it became obvious to the committee that their view of Communion and women in ministry differed significantly from mine. They also suspected that they were a bit more conservative regarding biblical inerrancy than I was.  In our last meeting, Bob Moore raised those issues noting our differences.  Having done so, he said, “We think we want to recommend you to our church; but given our differences on these issues, we want to know how you will handle that should you become our pastor.”  I told them that whenever it was appropriate to speak to those issues, I would be honest about what I believed to be the teaching of Scripture and the leading of God; but that any decision about change would be the church’s decision.

This long journey of a people and their pastor began with honesty.  The journey has not always been smooth; and, in the early years, both the people and the pastor occasionally had doubts about their future.  Today, the doubts are long gone.  We still find ourselves on opposite sides of some issues.  Actually, we now have a congregation composed of members who hold a wide variety of beliefs and interpretations.  The result is that we often disagree among ourselves.  What binds us together is our openness to each other, a commitment that each member has a right to be heard, and our common commitment to Jesus.

I never expected the journey to last this long.  It has and it continues.  Today, I am not so much celebrating thirty-five years as I am celebrating the beginning of my thirty-sixth year as this congregation’s pastor. 

I have been and am blessed to be pastor to the people of Eminence Baptist Church and our community.  Donna and I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

How much longer will the journey last?  The Lord knows . . . and that is enough.

Monday, August 4, 2014

I Don't Like Crowds

I don’t like crowds.

I don’t like being in places that attract crowds.

I don’t like having my name called out time after time by people who need something.

I wonder if Jesus liked crowds . . . or being in places that attracted them.

I wonder if he grew tired of having his name called out by people who needed something.

In days gone by, I’ve read the story of the feeding of the 5000+ and wondered at how so little food could feed so many people . . . and how did Jesus pull it off?  I missed the point.

The miracle was not in the feeding of the 5000+. The miracle was in Jesus caring about them . . . caring enough to come away from his search for solitude to be there . . . there with them . . . here with us.

Multiplying food is no big miracle.

The miracle is in the extending of love and grace.

I don’t like crowds or places that attract them, but I’m headed toward one—one that includes all those who have and are experiencing God’s love and grace.

I don’t like hearing my name called by those who need something; but having been needy and now filled, I pray that I will respond with God’s love and grace.

What choice is there?  The Table is spread . . . the Bread is broken . . . the Cup is spilled out.  upon me and upon all, love and grace has poured down.

I surrender; and in surrender, I find my life.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Christians Behaving Badly

Christians behaving badly is bad business.  If only it were an occasional thing.  The greater problem is that the more we behave badly the more we become something we ought not to be.

It is so easy to be other than we ought to be.  Have you noticed that?  And once we become other than we should have been, it is so easy—and so necessary—to find a way to justify where and why we went wrong. 

As Alexander Pope said, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”  We can’t help it!  The Apostle Paul admitted as such: “. . . all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God . . .” (Romans 3:23 NRSV).  Thank you, Mr. Pope and Apostle Paul.  We do what we ought not to do and become what we ought not to become because we are human beings who can’t help that we are sinners.  It’s not our fault!  It’s God’s fault. 

We are caught in a never-ending circle of grace.  We sin; God forgives; and the circle is complete.  The more we sin, the more God can and must forgive.  Isn’t it wonderful?  We are merely being who we are, and God is being whom God is, and all is right with the world.  Grace abounds.  Sin more and more grace is dispensed.  Hallelujah and Amen! 

Thus endeth the lesson.  Amen.

Well, there is one tiny other matter.  Paul does say that we all sin.  It is, as Mr. Pope suggested, human nature to err.  Paul, however, had more to say; and Mr. Pope may well have meant more than we take from this oft-quoted line.

Paul states that sin has dominion over us only because we submit ourselves to sin.  We let sin have its way with us.  The solution is to change who has dominion—who rules us.  “Present yourselves to God . . . and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.  For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under the law but under grace” (Romans 6:13-14 NRSV).  Granted, this is no easy task, but there are great incentives.

To continually follow the way of sin is to court death—death greater than the cessation of life.  The death that ensues from sin is Death with a capital “D.”  On the other hand, to present ourselves to God is to open the door to something greater than ourselves.  It is to open the door to grace—grace that includes forgiveness for our sins but goes beyond.  The grace God offers us is grace that is creative and cleansing. 

God’s grace ushers us through a door labeled “sanctification.”  Sanctification is God’s way of making us into who we were meant to be—children of God, created in God’s image.  Sanctification is not an instantaneous change.  We’re not one thing on one side of the door and other on the other side.  On the other side of the door lies a new way—God’s way as revealed in Jesus.  Passing through the door, we embark on a new journey; and along that journey, we experience the saving grace of God.  We experience sanctification—the gradual process by which we become what God declares us to be, children of God.

Who we are and what we become is largely determined by our choice as to what or who has dominion over our living.

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Prayer on the Day of Pentecost

Almost everyone I know claims to know Jesus. 

Not all who claim to know him also claim to follow him. 

What I’m beginning to wonder is how many who claim to follow him really know him?

In Jesus’ day, some who best understood him chose not to follow him.  They chose not to follow him because they knew that doing so would change them and their way of living; and having that change was not to their liking.

Some who did follow him didn’t really know him.  When some of those discovered who he really was, they went their own way.  Others followed until they began to understand; and having understood, they followed—many unto death.

Not all who seem to understand Jesus and to follow him seem happy about it.  In fact, some of them seem to be the least happy people around.

Some who seem to understand Jesus and to follow him seem to be among the happiest and most content people I know.  In many cases this is true even though their life circumstances lead me to expect them to be anything but happy and content.

What accounts the variety of ways in which people respond to Jesus?

Perhaps the happiest and the most content among us are those who heard the invitation: “Let everyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.”  Those who drink are drinking in the Spirit of God; and out of them, “will flow rivers of living water.”  The “water” that flows out is the same “water” that flows in.  It is the Spirit of God.

I come . . . I come, O Lord.  Fill me with your Spirit . . . quench the burning thirst of my soul.  Fill me, that from me the rivers of your living Spirit may flow and refresh others.  Amen.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Darkness of Easter Morning

As I write this, it is almost the morning of the first day of the week.  In just a little while, the women will be going out to the tomb—his tomb.  We men told them not to do it . . . that it is too dangerous; but they aren’t going to listen. 

We tried to tell them that it is over.  We all thought he was the Messiah . . . the Hope of Israel; but he died like any other man put through the torture he had to endure.  It’s over, and there is no reason for them to risk their lives or ours by going back to the tomb to add more spices to his dead body.  What difference can it make?

They will go.  Mary Magdalene can be a persuasive woman.  Yes, they will go; and then they will come running back to us with more tears and tales about how unfair it all is . . .  about how good a man he was.   Life is unfair . . . it always has been for people like us, and always will be.
They will go . . . they will see the tomb sealed up and guarded.  What good will it do?

They will go . . . and what good will come of it?

The sun will dawn soon . . . a new day will begin . . . and what difference will it make?
What difference, indeed?