You all know those jokes that begin ‘I’ve got good news and bad news . . .” Well, in this sermon I’m going to flip it around and talk about the bad news first, because there is lots of bad news in the appointed lessons for today. There is talk of a dreadful “Day of the Lord.” There are dire warnings of impending disaster. Continue reading
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, and those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
The “Shadow of Death.” That doesn’t sound very good, does it?
I asked Rabbi Josh Breindel of Temple Anshe Amunim in Pittsfield about the phrase and he said it is quite literally “shadow of death” in Hebrew. He said it is a colloquial saying and means something like “mortal peril.” We are all acquainted with that image from the 23rd Psalm: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me.”
Two of the traditional themes for the Epiphany season are “light shining in the darkness” and the “calling to Christian discipleship,” and I hope to combine them today. Continue reading
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10-11)
The title for today’s gathering was announced as “Getting from There to Here.” As I reflected on it I wondered if perhaps “getting from here to there” might be more apt. “Here” being the text in front of you, to “there, ” the sermon. That works.
But as I thought more about it I saw the wisdom of “from there to here.” From “there,” “the strange new world of the Bible,” to “here,” the world we live in. And I thought of some of the various locutions we have used over the years to capture this movement from text to sermon, such as “from text to context” or “from Word to world.”
Then I considered the many ways I have approached the writing and preaching of sermons, and I realized this movement from text to sermon was more dialectical and less linear than any of these ways of speaking about it.
As I thought about it, the more I liked the sub-title of The Hobbit, which as you may know is “There and back again.” So perhaps “here to there and back again” is more like it.
From here to there and back again describes a journey that is not just a straight line, but rather more like a journey without a map or even a predetermined end. And I like this way of thinking, because it captures how I have experienced sermon preparation in my four decades as a preacher.
I start with a Biblical text, and then I live with that text throughout the week on my journey, revisiting it and wrestling with it and worrying it until I begin to hear something of the voice of God in it, and by then the contours of the journey begin to show themselves, as do even the purpose of the journey and it’s destination.
The process seems to take on a life of its own, which is another way of saying that the Word of God is alive. I like today’s Isaiah text where God uses the agricultural metaphor of rain and snow watering the earth and making it produce to describe the way his Word works, “It shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
And I want to say a bit about what I mean when I say “the Word of God,” which can mean one thing or another, even sometimes one thing and another, or even three things depending on the context.
One way of thinking about this that has helped me comes from Karl Barth. He wrote about the threefold understanding of the Word of God. First, there are the written words of the Bible, then there are the spoken words of the preacher, and finally, and most importantly, there is the living Word, Jesus Christ.
This living Word is mediated through both the written words and the spoken words. The prayer I began my sermon with today is based on this idea: “Through the written word, and the spoken word, may we behold the living Word, even Jesus Christ our Lord.”
And that is not to say every text needs to be understood Christologically (although it can be), as in the text we have from Isaiah today. But to say there is a living Word is to say that whenever we hear the Word of God as direct address to us, it is the same Word of the same God, who came to us and for us and became the Word made flesh.
So when I talk about the Word of God in sermon preparation, it may be a reference to the text itself, the words, or to the proclamation in the form of a sermon, the Word preached, or to both, but the goal of the journey is, through the finite human words of the text, and the finite human words of the preacher, to transcend this finitude to hear the living Word of God. And I believe this is the primary task and challenge of preachers, and of the church, for that matter.
Let me say a little bit more about the words of the text and the words of the preacher as the Word of God. I think of them by analogy to the doctrine of the two natures of Christ. Jesus is truly human and truly divine, not half and half or some other percentage.
And in much the same way (although not identically) the words of our Scriptures, the Old Testament and the New Testament, are truly human and truly divine. Human in every way, written (and edited) by human beings, and truly divine through the agency of the Holy Spirit of God who inspired the writers to write them, the same Holy Spirit the church invokes when we read them.
And the same thing can be said about the words of the preacher. A sermon is not written in some special spiritual words, but in the same human words that we use in everyday speech. Since everyone in this room is a preacher I don’t have to belabor the point that we are all human, even all-too human. Yet the Holy Spirit that inspired the writers of Scripture is the same Holy Spirit that inspires the preacher, and the same Holy Spirit that the church invokes and invites as it prepares to hear the Living Word of God from the frail words of scripture and the frail words of the preacher.
This is admittedly a high view of preaching, and some might say it claims too much for the preacher. I would say quite the opposite. It is the views of preaching that put emphasis on the personality and performance of the preacher that claim too much for the preacher.
The claim that the preacher is to be a minister of the Word of God is much like the church’s understanding of the celebrant at the eucharist. The principal was established early in the church during the Donatist controversy. The Donatists were heretics, so the question arose whether the baptisms they performed were valid. And the church agreed that “the efficacy of the sacrament does not depend on the sanctity of the celebrant.” So the preacher may be more or less gifted with the homiletical arts, but it is not those gifts that are decisive. What is decisive for the preacher is that he or she has been set apart to deliver the church’s proclamation, so that the church may hear in it the living Word of God. It is not about the preacher. It is about the church hearing the Word of God.
This is a (nearly) sacramental view of preaching, that the preacher should say what the sacrament shows. And in both cases neither the preacher nor the celebrant has control over the Holy Spirit of God, as if we somehow could control God. No, Christ is not truly present in the sacrament nor truly alive in the preached Word because we invoke his name, but rather because he himself commanded us to do these things and promised to be present with us when we did.
So with this high view before us, and a text in front of us, how do we get from there to here or from here to there and back again?
The first thing I want to say about approaching a text is the expectation that God will speak through it. Which is to say that the high view I propose operates out of trust. I think it was Richard Hayes who wrote about a “hermeneutic of trust.” For decades we have been talking and hearing about “a hermeneutic of suspicion,” and that has had its place as an corrective to the Scriptures being misused as instruments of oppression and injustice, “texts of terror,” as my teacher Phyllis Trible so eloquently called them. But there has been a heavy price to pay for the widespread “hermeneutic of suspicion” that has so pervaded the academy for decades, in that many preachers now reflexively distrust the texts.
And I think it is sometimes necessary and appropriate to distrust a text, but it shouldn’t be where we start. Sometimes distrusting a text along the way will lead you to the Word of God.
So the text is in front of us. Perhaps it is an assigned text from the lectionary. I like that, because I can be a lazy sinner who is inclined to make my favorite texts do tricks for me, but that is just me.
Perhaps the Bible is open on our desk, perhaps it is on our computer screen or smartphone, but there it is. First things first: read the text.
Read it in expectation that God’s Word can be heard in it, but don’t rush to decide what it means or even what it has to say. Texts need time. They need to be listened to. I have always described my sermon preparation as inhabiting a text. Living in it.
Another good way to think about it is to “stand under” the text so as to understand it. And the preacher stands under the text along with the rest of the church.
I am really talking about hermeneutics now more than the homiletical side of things. So you all know the various ways to worry a text into view. Read it in the original languages if you have them. Read it in several translations. Look up any key words or phrases in a Bible Dictionary. Take a stroll through some commentaries. Find out its genre and its original context. In other words do your homework. I once preached a sermon that involved Herod, and added “you remember him from the Christmas story.” My dear friend Luther Pierce, a retired UCC minister, shook my hand at the door and said, “Good sermon, Rick, but you conflated Herod the Great with Herod Antipas. Different Herod.” Oops!
So once you’ve done your due diligence and you have the text in your grasp, reflect on the context. Those of you who were preaching in the weeks after 9/11 may recall that the Common Lectionary texts were from Jeremiah and Lamentations, texts we had all avoided in the past because they are horrible cries of despair for the destruction of Jerusalem. All of a sudden after 9/11 texts about the city of devastation and the burning tower became eerily contemporary.
Which is to say contexts change. The immediate context of any preacher is the life of the congregation, and when I talk of inhabiting a text, I am referring to going about one’s pastoral duties with the text in mind. From here to there and back again.
Then there are the larger contexts of the communities in which we live and the country and world we are a part of. Sometimes contexts demand our attention.
We rarely get the kind of compelling clarity about the relationship between text and context that we got after 9/11, but keeping the text in mind as we think about the multiple contexts will often show us the way to go, the particular context that needs to be addressed by the Word of God.
The dialectic of the journey of text to context and context to text means straddling two worlds with the hope we can find in them the same story.
I had the privilege of preaching my daughter’s ordination sermon back in June, and afterwards Mary Luti said, “I like the way you went back and forth from the story in the scriptures to your story now.” And her comment made me realize that I preach that way because to me it is the same story.
I immediately thought of Hans Frei’s The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, a wonderful and important book. Frei’s thesis is that prior to the Enlightenment Christians inhabited the Biblical Story. They understood it as their story. They were part of it. The Enlightenment changed that as we held the story at arm’s length like any other observable phenomenon.
The task of the preacher is to repair the breach; to make the Christian Story our story again. I am reminded of Bruno Bettelheim’s book, The Uses of Enchantment, where he argues for the re-enchantment of the world for children through fairy tales.
Letting the words of scripture and the words of the preacher be the Word of God for God’s people requires a similar kind of re-enchantment. It means the church realizing that the Story isn’t just back there, but is still going on and we are characters in it.
Let’s look quickly at our Isaiah text for today to see how this might be done. The text is from Isaiah of the Exile and the context is a people who have no reason to be hopeful, since they have lost the three pillars of their identity, their temple, their land and their nation.
The promises made to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob seem null and void. Their prospects seem dim, their possibilities few.
Into this context God speaks through the prophet. “My ways are not your ways, my thoughts are not your thoughts.” “You know that rain and snow we sometimes get in the desert? That is what my word is like. It will not come up empty. It will make happen that which I promised.”
And that is what the Word of God sounds like.
And when we hear this story, can it speak to us, where our prospects seem dim and our possibilities few? Can it speak to a declining church too often eager to call it a day? Can it speak to a nation full of grave injustices and inequalities? Can it speak to a world of death and terror?
When Isaiah speaks the Word of God to the exiles he lets them see what can’t be seen, and makes them believe what they can only know by trust in the one who speaks to them. The Word makes them part of the story again, the story that began at the beginning when God said “light” and there was light, the story that saw their ancestors freed from bondage, the story that seemed to come to an end, but now God says to them, “No, it’s not ending. Not at all. I will lead you through the desert of your journey into my own future.” And what will it be like? It will be like this:
“You shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
And let the people say: Amen.
I preached this sermon at the New England Pastor’s Meeting of Confessing Christ, West Boylston, Massachusetts, on September 26, 2013.
But the Lord said to me: Do not say ‘I am only a boy; for you shall go to all whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.’ Jeremiah I.7
It is good to be back with you. I so enjoyed being here on Epiphany Sunday for Pastor Mike’s installation. It was cold then. It is not cold today. I have a small confession to make. Mike e-mailed me “We don’t wear robes in the summer.” And I e-mailed him back, “Can I wear one. I’m kind of a robe guy.” So I brought a robe and a stole up here to Dover, but then I realized I was preaching about opening oneself to new experiences and insights, so I’ve decided not to wear one. You know, to walk the walk as well as to talk the talk. I am also wearing a blue shirt for the first time in forty years, because I’m kind of a white shirt guy, too. So I’m really being daring today.
Will you pray with me:
Gracious God, through the written word, and through the spoken word, may we behold the Living Word, even your Son our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen
I was just twenty-six years old when I graduated from seminary and became the pastor of the Congregational Churches of West Newfield and Limerick, Maine, just over the border and up the road about an hour from here. That was nearly forty years ago.
I grew a beard to look older and wiser than my years, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t fool anyone. I’ve learned a thing or two about the ways of the world and the church and myself, but when it comes to the ways of God I still stand in awe before the mystery of it all as much as I did back then.
But I will tell you one thing I have learned. You have to be open to hearing the voice of God from unlikely people and in unexpected situations. This is a humbling truth, and there is a kind of Socratic inversion about it. Remember how Socrates said of himself: “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”
Likewise, the people who think they always know what God is saying tend to be the ones least open to hearing from God, and are therefore the least knowledgeable.
Because if we decide in advance where and when and through whom God will speak, we severely limit our capacity to hear from God.
There are many reasons we close our minds and hearts to those through whom God speaks.
Perhaps we think someone is too young to speak for God. In our Old Testament reading today, Jeremiah tells God just that, that he is too young to be a prophet. God rebukes him, saying: “Do not say ‘I am only a boy; for you shall go to all whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.’” Jeremiah I.7
I remember when I was young being frustrated that older people often found it hard to see me as someone with something to say because of my age. Now that I am not so young, I have to resist the impulse to dismiss the insights and wisdom of the young, and to tell the truth, I find myself more and more learning from those who are younger, which is an ever-expanding group.
My twenty-nine year old daughter, Rebecca, was just ordained to the ministry in June. I have heard her preach several times now, and, if I do say so myself, she is pretty good. But sometimes when I am listening to her, my mind is saying, “How can this be? Is this my daughter? I remember the day she was born as if it were yesterday.”
And you have a daughter of this church being ordained soon, Emily Goodnow, a schoolmate of my daughter’s from Yale Divinity School. And perhaps some of you who watched her grow up in this congregation wonder, “How can this be? I remember when she was just a girl in Sunday school.”
Recall when Jesus went to his home synagogue to preach his hearers said, “Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.” (Mark 6:3)
His youth and their familiarity with him kept them from hearing him.
What else keeps us from hearing God speak to us? It wasn’t so very long ago that the conventional wisdom in the church was that preaching the Word of God was a man’s vocation. There are still Christians that believe that.
When I was growing up there were no women ministers in my church or in my experience. When I was at Andover Newton one of my teachers, Emily Hewitt, was one of the first 11 women ordained in the Episcopal Church. It caused quite a stir at the time.
As I was preparing this sermon I wondered what she was doing. So I Googled her, and I discovered that she later went to Harvard Law School, became a lawyer, and is now the Chief Judge of the United States Court of Federal Claims. Why would the church want to deprive itself of the talent of someone like her?
But for a long time we did keep women from using their gifts and talents. It was a widely accepted convention.
For example, and I am really dating myself now, but when I started my ministry in Maine, there were only male deacons, who served communion. The women, called deaconesses, set up the communion and cleaned up after. That was the way it had always been and it was accepted. But we went through a change. We saw the basic unjustness of this arrangement, and we changed it.
And so we changed our ideas about who could preach the Word of God, and now women ministers, and very talented ones like Rebecca and Emily, are a commonplace in our churches.
When John Robinson, the pastor of the Pilgrims in Leyden, addressed them before they shipped off to the New World, he preached a sermon to them. And in that sermon he said, “God hath yet more light and truth to break forth from his Holy Word.”
This openness to new light and truth is very biblical. Our God was always doing the unexpected. Even the people God chose to speak on his behalf or to carry out his plans were seldom what one would expect.
Think about some of them with me: Jacob was a liar, a cheat, and general scoundrel. He tricked his father, stole his brother’s birthright, and had to leave town in the dark of night. Yet he became the Father of a Nation and was given the name Israel.
Moses, God’s spokesman, said, “Not me, Lord, I’m not a good speaker. God said, “I’ll send your brother Aaron with you. He can do the talking.”
The prophet Jeremiah, who we heard about today, said, “I’m just a boy.”
And Mary, the mother of our savior, was a humble unmarried teenage mom.
These instruments of God go against our human expectations, but God uses all sorts and conditions of men and women to speak and act on his behalf.
And so we have had to expand the circle of those who preach, bringing in women within the lifetimes of many of us in this room.
And we are continuing to expand the circle. For example, in the church where I worship our pastor is gay. And he is married. And he and his husband just last week adopted a baby boy.
And that is new to me. And because of that it have been a bit of a challenge for me to get my mind around, because even a decade ago a gay, married pastor with a child was not part of my experience, or the experience of many for that matter.
Last year, during our interim period, I was praying for God to send us a faithful pastor and preacher. And God did, because this pastor is a rock-solid Christian, born and raised in the church, and I never hear a sermon of his without hearing something of the voice of God in it.
The world around us changes. The contexts in which we preach and hear changes. I am reminded of the story about Will Campbell, the white civil rights leader who marched with Martin Luther King. He was a Southern Baptist, and he was asked if he believed in infant baptism. “Believe in it? I’ve even seen one!”
So once again we have had to expand our thinking about who we think we might hear God’s Word from. We have had to expand the circle.
Because God calls a variety of men and women to speak on his behalf, and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes, races, tongues, and sexual orientations. And the truth is we need to hear from them all.
Because the Word of God doesn’t just drop from the sky. The Christian faith is a mediated faith, coming to us through the words of others. We have the words of the Bible, and the Word of God can be discerned in them, but they themselves are not the Word of God. No, to hear the Word of God we need human interpreters, which is one of the tasks of the church.
One way of thinking about this that has helped me was put forth by the great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth. He wrote about the threefold understanding of the Word of God. First, there are the written words of the Bible, then there are the spoken words of the preacher, and finally, and most importantly, there is the living Word, Jesus Christ.
This living Word is mediated through both the written words and the spoken words. The prayer I began my sermon with is based on this idea: “Through the written word, and the spoken word, may we behold the living Word, even Jesus Christ our Lord.”
So we need people in the church to mediate the Word of God to us, to make it real for us. And this happens in community and in relationships with real people living real lives, with real talents and struggles. We need all kinds of people, so that you can even hear a sermon from someone like me with a brain injury.
Those of you who were here for Mike Bennett’s installation in January will remember that I preached a sermon called “Ministry is not a Commodity and Ministers are not Appliances.” And in that sermon I said this: “Mike embodies what the great preacher Gardner Taylor was after when he advised preachers “to look beyond the peripheral signs of preaching greatness to the real source of pastoral insight–the common bond with one’s hearers provided by suffering.” And I would expand Taylor’s words to include not only suffering, but all manner of shared life-experience, the kind that happens in community, the kind that happens day to day in the church.
And I said this to you: “If you let him, Mike will share your lives, will rejoice when you rejoice and weep when you weep, and will become your pastor.”
And by all indications it seems that, nearly a year into your relationship together, you are finding that to be true.
But the very best preacher in the world does not make the Word of God alive by himself or herself. For that you also need good hearers, ones open to hearing things that they may not have heard before, that may challenge them, prod them, even make them unhappy or angry.
But by being open to the unexpected, hearers may well hear things that please and delight them, things that make them wiser and stronger and more faithful. And may open them to larger truths, to new wonders, and, above all, to the amazing grace and the vast love of God for us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I preached this sermon on August 25, 2013 at the First Parish Church, Congregational (UCC) in Dover, New Hampshire.
The Secret Sauce of Ministry
A Recipe in Two Parts
As some of you know I like to cook. This time of year, when the weather gets fine, I fire up my grill and do some grilling and barbecuing. And I love to sit on my back porch near the grill with a cold beverage and read cookbooks, of which I have many, or as Martha would say, “too many.”
Many of these grilling and barbecuing books contain recipes for a “secret sauce.” I have been noticing lately that the term “secret sauce” has migrated from its culinary context and is now being employed as a metaphor for that special something that makes things work properly.
For example, I recently heard a journalist talking about “the secret sauce” that would create “a grand bargain” to overcome the Congressional budget impasse. Good luck with that.
So I started to wonder, “ What’s the secret sauce of ministry?” If I had to come up with a simple recipe for what makes ministry faithful and effective what would it be?
So here’s my recipe, which comes in two parts, which I hope you will take away with you today for your own ministry, whether lay or ordained.
1. The first part of the secret sauce is this: You can’t do it alone. Rebecca couldn’t have come to this day alone, and she can’t do her ministry alone. No one does it alone.
How does one come to know God? And to love God? And to want to serve God?
When I look out at this congregation I see so many here today who have helped to shape and influence Rebecca. I am reminded of the scripture from Hebrews we just heard that says we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” The image is from the ancient stadium where the races were held, and the cloud of witnesses are the spectators who cheer the racers on.
This great crowd includes both the living and the dead, “the church militant” and “the church triumphant.”
So among the crowd present in the congregation today are many members of Rebecca’s family, let’s call them “the crowd of the proud.”
In addition to Martha and myself, are Rebecca’s brother Andrew and his wife, Jessica. Rebecca’s maternal grandparents, Art and Marianne Talis, are here. As are several assorted aunties, an uncle, and a cousin.
These family members represent a great line going back through generations of Talises and Beers, Floyds and Laffoons, and, let me tell you, there is a lot of church in these families.
We represent a great ecumenical melting pot, from the Greek Orthodox faith of Rebecca’s grandfather’s forbears, to the German Protestantism of her grandmother.
My mother’s father, Bill Laffoon, a descendant of French Huguenots, was a deacon at his Congregational Church in Wichita, Kansas. His schooling ended with the 6th grade, but saw to it that his two daughters went to college during the height of the Depression.
Granddaddy read his Bible every day, and his speech was sprinkled with scripture verses.
So when I was growing up my mother also had a scripture for every occasion, I thought she was so wise, she’d say, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” And, “Do not cast your pearls before swine.” When I went to seminary I discovered that they weren’t original with my mother, but came from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.
Years later, Rebecca had the same experience at Yale when she learned where all my wise sayings came from.
On the other side of the family, I think today also of Martha’s grandmother, Marta Beer, which in our family is a family name and not a beverage. My Martha is named after her. She raised three daughters by herself in wartime Germany, and was another great churchwoman. How proud she would be.
This rich ecclesiastical family DNA has helped to shape and form Rebecca into a minister. They are all part of this congregation today, a part of the cloud of witnesses.
But there’s more. For as grand as Rebecca’s family legacy of ministry is, and as important as family support and nurture is, family alone cannot make a minister.
And so I look around this room and I see many people from Rebecca’s past, a number of the good people of the First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, where Rebecca was baptized and confirmed. I see some of her Sunday School teachers, youth group leaders, mentors and supporters, who have made the trip down here today from the Berkshires.
And when I look around today I also see many other friends, Pittsfield neighbors, UCC and ecumenical colleagues, and folks from the Berkshire Association, who have been part of Rebecca’s life.
I see some of her Wellesley College roommates up in the balcony. I see Yale classmates and New Haven friends, and, of course, all of you from Green’s Farms Church, members and staff, who have so warmly embraced Rebecca in your community, and are now such an important part of this most recent chapter in her life.
There are others, too, I must mention, who are neither related to Rebecca nor have ever met her, who she knows from the books she loves and the scriptures she studies. Those many other witness, men and women of the church: prophets, apostles, martyrs, evangelists, theologians, reformers, writers and thinkers down through the ages. They are part of this great crowd, too. They were all witnesses to God, and to God’s vast love for us in Jesus Christ.
So all of you here, and all the unseen but present, make up the great cloud of witnesses, who cheer us all on as we go about our several ministries, and especially cheer Rebecca on today. I thank God, for you and for them.
So to take nothing away from Rebecca, who as you know, is a remarkable young woman and certainly gets much of the credit for us being here today, she hasn’t done it alone. Because this ministry business is a team sport, and I have just described to you just how really big the team is.
Nobody gets to ministry alone, and nobody does ministry alone, because you can’t do it alone.
So that’s the first part of the recipe for the secret sauce of ministry.
2. The second part of the recipe for the secret sauce of ministry is this: It’s not about you. To do ministry in the name of Jesus Christ you have to get out of your own way.
What does this mean? Recall how Jesus was always confusing the disciples by saying things like “the one who would gain his life must lose it.” And “The one who exalts herself will be humbled, but the one who humbles herself will be exalted.”
And the disciples never quite understood what he was trying to teach them until after Easter. Their hopes had been dashed on Good Friday as they fled from him and his cross. But after Easter all those things he said made sense. He was showing them a way, a way of selflessness, of servant-hood, a way to be a person for others.
And recall also how our brother Paul kept writing to churches that were fighting, and saying in one form or another, “It’s not about you!”
To the Corinthians he wrote, “What we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake (2 Cor. 4,5). And a couple of lines later in that same letter he wrote them, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.” (2 Cor. 4:7).
What was he trying to tell them about ministry? That “it’s not about you.” To be a minister you have to get out of your own way. And the reason that you have to get out of your own way is first to make space for God to work in and through you. And you have to get out of your own way, secondly, to make space for the other, the ones you minister to.
I was with Mary Luti at a meeting the week before last and I told her how excited I was that she would be laying holy hands on Rebecca and doing the prayer of ordination today. I said to Mary, “It is so fitting because it was under your ministry that Rebecca started discerning her call.”
And Mary demurred and said, “I really didn’t do that much.” And I thought she was just being humble. But as I started pondering the recipe for the secret sauce of ministry, I realized she was quite right.
And you know why she was right? Because it wasn’t Mary who called Rebecca into the ministry. Mary was just doing her job, which is how ministry works. Rebecca was a questioning young woman in a pew in Cambridge, and Mary was doing her job, which was to share the God she knows and loves. And Rebecca was in the right time and the right place with the right person, and God’s Holy Spirit works like that, in what seems mundane, but can at the same time be quite marvelous.
Our society cultivates a cult of personality, a cult of celebrity, but ministry is not about that. There are celebrity ministers, but the good ones, the faithful ones, know it is not about them.
The word minister actually means one who represents another. The Europeans use it this way in describing their government officials: the minister for finance, or the foreign minister. These are the ones who represent the government in their particular area of expertise
Likewise, a Christian minister is one who represents Jesus Christ. And representing Jesus Christ means taking the form of a servant. Jesus once told his disciples, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt 20:25-28.)
Not to be ministered to, but to minister. Not to be served but to serve.
This is counter-cultural in our self-obsessed society. To tell people to get out of their own way for God and for others is not a particularly popular philosophy today. When I peruse the magazines at the super-market checkout there are titles such as Self, Us, People (meaning famous self-absorbed people) but I don’t see Servant or Ministry magazine.
There was a fascinating interview with director Sofia Coppola in last Sunday’s New York Times about her new movie, The Bling Ring. The movie is based on a true story about five teenagers from the San Fernando Valley in California, who were so obsessed with the culture of personality and the trappings of celebrity that they started breaking into celebrity’s homes and stealing stuff.
They would often just walk in through an unlocked front door, or climb in an open window. They robbed people like Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton.
In the course of a nine-month spree they looted more than 3 million dollars worth of jewelry and designer clothes. I found the story shocking, but part of it got me chuckling to myself. Apparently they broke into Paris Hilton’s home six times before she even noticed. “She had so much stuff that it took awhile for her to realize someone had broken in.”
Have you seen the bumper sticker that says, “The one who dies with the most stuff wins?” A better, truer one would say, “The one who dies with the most stuff dies.”
Sofia Coppola said she chose this subject for her movie because she has two small daughters, and she fears for them growing up in this glittery world of celebrity culture, a culture that sends the message that it really is all about you and your stuff. She describes hearing some of her daughter’s 6 year-old friends talking about what they wanted to be when they grew up, and a couple of them said, “I want to be famous.” She asks, “Where does that come from?” I don’t think we knew about that when we were six years old.”
And that is a challenge for ministry these days. I am particularly thinking of parents and youth ministers. How do we raise our children in a society that tells them it really is all about us?
When we were driving through the countryside in France we would sometimes see vast fields of sunflowers as far as the eye could see. The sunflowers would be facing East toward the rising sun in the morning, and as the sun moved through the sky the sunflowers would turn toward it, so that at dusk they would have turned completely toward the West. In fact the French world for sunflower is tournesol, which literally means “turn to the sun.”
Sunflowers do this because they are heliotropic; they need the sun to live. By analogy, we are theotropic, we need God to live, and we are made to bend our love toward God and others. But we too often bend our love toward ourselves, and that is where we get in trouble, for instead of living for God and others we try to love ourselves and control things as if we were God.
And that is what is so beautiful about our second reading today from Philippians; it turns the equation entirely upside down. God in Christ bends toward us, and shows us what love looks like.
The late British theologian Colin Gunton said,
Sin is for the creature to think and act as if it were the creator. But here in Philippians 2 Jesus is godlike precisely in going the other way.
Here Jesus empties himself even of his divinity to become a servant, “a man for others” as Dietrich Bonheoffer described him.
And it is this humility, this self-emptying, this relinquishing of privilege, that Paul wants the church in Philippi to emulate. He writes them to “let the same mind be among you that was in Christ Jesus.”
The church in Philippi was having one of those squabbles that have been known to happen in congregations, even in our own time. Paul admonishes them to get out of their own way, and have the very same mindset as Jesus, the mindset that led him to empty himself, and in humility take the form of a servant, the mindset that ultimately led to his death on the cross.
But it’s not so easy to have the same mindset as Jesus. Remember those WWJD bracelets, that stood for “what would Jesus do?” Some people criticized those WWJD bracelets for being overly simplistic. Because asking, “What would Jesus do? doesn’t really solve the problem. It usually isn’t that hard to know what Jesus would do. People talk about the hard passages in the Bible, and there are some, but the parts that really challenge and convict me aren’t the parts I don’t understand, but the parts I do. “Love your enemies.” “Feed the hungry.” “Welcome the stranger.” “Share your possessions.” “Turn the other cheek.” “Take up your cross and follow me.” Just to name a few.
So the hard part, after you figure out what Jesus would do, is doing it.
To “practice what we preach,” to “walk the walk as well as talk the talk” is where we pretty consistently fail, and why we need grace and forgiveness to keep trying. And the good news is that is exactly what we get from our God, grace and forgiveness.
In the cross of Jesus Christ, God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, and saves us from ourselves, among other things, such as sin and death.
All ministers, you and me, lay or ordained, even Rebecca, fail at being consistently Christ-like. But the wisest ministers know that our ministry is at its most faithful when we realize that it is not about us, when we get out of our own way, as Jesus did, to be a servant, as he was a servant, to serve as he served, to love as he loved, and to be a person for others.
And here’s the beautiful thing: if you follow this recipe you don’t really lose yourself at all, you will actually find yourself. Only the empty can be filled with the new life God wants for us. Jesus said, “I came that you might have life, and have it in abundance.” (John 10:10)
Because this self- emptying doesn’t mean we lose our personalities or our personal identities. On the contrary, when our love bends toward God and others, as those sunflowers bend toward the sun, when we lose ourselves in service, when we live for others, we are most ourselves, our own true best selves as God intended us to be.
Just as Jesus’ exalted lordship is ultimately revealed in his humble servant-hood.
Let us listen to it again:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a servant
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”
And let the people say: Amen.
I preached this sermon at the Ordination of my daughter, Rebecca Megan Floyd, on June 9, 2013, at the Green’s Farms Congregational Church, UCC, in Westport, Connecticut.
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on the earth distress among the nations confused by the roaring of the sea and waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding for what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and glory.” (Luke 21:25-36)
In this passage the world is being shaken loose. It occurs to me that the upheavals described in apocalyptic texts like this one are very much like the language of creation only in reverse. In the first chapter of Genesis God calls things into being one after the other and pronounces them good. The sun and moon, the earth and waters, and all the living things are summoned into life by God’s creative Word. A world takes shape.
But in our Gospel today that world is shaken to its foundations. The secure, predictable world we have come to know and rely upon is threatened and can no longer be relied upon. The primordial chaos that the original creation turned back, now threatens to break loose upon the world. Then at the very climax of the distress the Son of Man appears in power and glory.
Those early Christians who heard these words in the New Testament period no doubt heard them as reassuring words. Words that expressed the faith that although the world around them was up for grabs and insecure Christ was still in charge and coming soon.
Isaac Watts expresses the mood of this passage in this hymn:
“Deep are his counsels, and unknown,
But grace and truth support his throne;
Through gloomy clouds his ways surround,
Justice is their eternal ground.
In robes of judgement, lo! he comes,
Shakes the wide earth and cleaves the tombs;
Before him burns devouring fire;
the mountains melt, the seas retire.”
Although we may not share the world view of first century Christians let me suggest that their description of a world where everything is being shaken loose can speak to our own sense of insecurity in a world whose foundations are shaken.
How many of us have felt the secure world we knew was being shaken to its foundations? Our life is a perpetual series of change. We move, we gain or lose a job, we marry, have a child, someone we love gets sick or dies, a relationship ends, things change. In truth we live among flux and change all the time. It is not always cataclysmic change, but change nevertheless.
Last spring I was coming back from my Princeton program and I stopped in Bergen County, New Jersey to visit the little town I grew up in. The small old church looked very much the same as when I left over forty years ago, but much else had changed. The house I grew up with was torn down shortly after I left, but there were also new roads and developments, and as I drove around I got disoriented sometimes by the changes. The town that exists in my own mind and the town that exists now bear some resemblance, but are not quite the same town, just as I am not the eighteen year old who left that town so many years ago.
There was an obituary this week for someone who worked at The Busy Bee, a Pittsfield restaurant that I have heard about, but was long gone even when I got here in 1982, displaced by the misguided urban renewal of the nineteen sixties, the same plan that took away the much missed train station on Depot Street. Folksinger Dave Mallet sings a song that laments these losses:
“I miss Main Street, where everyone knew you by name,
I miss Main Street, O how this little town change.
It’s all part of progress, changing the old, for the new.
I miss Main Street, What in the world is this world coming to?”
The point is that the security of the familiar is an illusion of time, and in time we eventually all come to know the feeling of a world that no longer feels secure.
Advent invites us to consider what there is of abiding security in the face of the shaking of the foundations. What can be counted on in a world where everything is shaken loose? Listen to the witness of Psalm 46:
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the seas;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”
We need such a word of hope and reassurance. It is too easy sometimes for us to become fearful and insecure in the face of the world’s changes. Things will change, of that we can be sure, although the changes are often as unpredictable as the results of the recent election.
There was a good slogan on the sign board at Zion’s Lutheran Church this past week. It said: “Election results: God Reigns!” That is just right. isn’t it?
Advent reminds us that God comes to us not only at the end of time, but also from time to time, in gentle visitations that we may miss for our preoccupation with making a secure world apart from him.
The Advent word is not just a word of reassurance, but also a word of judgement, a word of challenge and an invitation to change. There are things about all of us that need shaking to the foundations, and surely things in our society that could well be shaken loose to make the world a more just and Godly place.
Our attempts to find security can be idols. There are idols of race and clan and class that tempt us to find security there. There can be a fearful clinging to a secure past which is not open to the new thing that God is doing in our midst.
A world where the solidities we have counted on are shaken loose offers us the opportunity for new life, new hope, and new faith in the God who comes to meet us even as the foundations are shaking.
The language of Advent is the language of anticipation for God’s new future. It is not a future we can make for ourselves. It may be something we can not readily see or even imagine. Through thick and thin, through trying times and good times, faith waits and watches, alert for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
(I preached this sermon on December 3, 2000 at the First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, Massachusetts)
There is something beautiful and mysterious about Advent, but there is, at the same time, something unsettling, darkly anxious, almost threatening about it. The Advent mood is hard to put into words. It is often captured better by its hymns, which are often dark and brooding, sung in a minor key.
The scripture lessons for Advent set the tone with their continued prophetic calls for repentance, the dire warnings to “wait and watch,” the urgency of preparation for what is coming. We hear about those who are unprepared for God, tenants who are surprised by the sudden appearance of their long-absent landlord, sleepy bridesmaids waiting with their empty oil-lamps for the bridegroom to come.
In short, it’s an expectant season, a season of being primed and pumped, and there is a nervous edge to the waiting. Lauren Winner, in her charming book Girl Meets God says of Advent, “The waiting is meant to be a little anxious. I picture Jane Austen heroines. They never are quite sure that their intended will come.”
But the Advent mood undergoes a dramatic change today, on this Third Sunday of Advent. The lessons lose their menace and begin to dance a bit. Suddenly, the warnings turn into promises. We hear of deserts blossoming, the seas exulting, and the trees of the field clapping their hands, so that if there were one word to capture the new mood it would have to be joy!
Traditionally this Third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin for joy, and it is a day for rejoicing.
But perhaps some of you don’t feel like rejoicing. Perhaps your own mood is more like the rest of Advent, darker, more anxious, somewhat unsettled, for any number of reasons, not least of which might be the state of the world.
The news of the world is always a distressed word, a word full of sadness and anger, a word tinged with fear and heavy with regret. Perhaps that is why the darker mood of the Advent season speaks to us at times more authentically than its more joyous mood. Because the news of the world in which we live is so often itself such a dark unsettled word.
Whether we recognize it or not we come to church to hear a counter-Word. We come burdened by our occupations and pre-occupations, weighed down by both the demands of daily living and the larger societal and global worries that clamor for our attention. We often think we have things pretty much figured out, but there are nagging areas of uncertainty about our fate and future.
We come perhaps unsure how reliable even the words we hear in church might be. The New Yorker last week had a cartoon in which a man is shaking hands with a minister at the door of a church. “Good sermon, Reverend,” he says, “but that God stuff is pretty far-fetched.”
Yes, it is. To the ears of the world the Good News often sounds like too-good-to be-true news. And a weekly hour’s religious interlude away from the world’s worries may not be enough to get us ready for rejoicing.
Nevertheless, on this Third Sunday in Advent we are admonished to rejoice. And in its wisdom the church has placed this rejoicing season in the midst of the heavier Advent mood, has placed today’s major key joyfulness amid the plaintive longing of the rest of the season, whose words are not words of hope and promise so much as words of warning, dire words that leave us judged.
And you can see the transition in today’s Old Testament lesson, which starts out in the usual Advent minor key in the first chapters.
But then listen to these words from Chapter three:
“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
“Shout, O Israel!
“Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you . . .
“The Lord your God is in your midst,
“He will rejoice over you with gladness
“He will renew you in his love;
“He will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.”
So how does the story get from Chapter 1 to Chapter 3, from judgment to mercy; from wrath to tender forgiveness; from fear to rejoicing, from death to life?
The answer is that the God who comes to be our judge is the same God who comes to be our Savior. This is what holds the waiting and rejoicing moods of Advent together.
God has taken the sentence that we deserve and has taken it upon himself. In Christ our judgment has been removed and the enemy has been turned away at the gates. We can rejoice as prisoners who have received a stay of execution. The Good News is like a governor’s pardon that arrives by the last post.
Such a reprieve is cause for rejoicing. Those who would have been given over to death by the word of the law are now brought to life by the life-giving word of the Gospel. God turns our death into life, our shame into praise. No wonder St. Paul commands us to rejoice!
But the rejoicing is not just on our part. We are not the only ones rejoicing this Advent. God rejoices along with those whose sentence he has overturned. Even God sings,
Because God is a lover and invites us to love him in return. The Christian story is above all a love story. It is not about something called religion, but it is all about the love God has for us. God wants us for himself. He wants us as lovers. This is the God who heals and saves, the God who gives meaning and hope to the downcast and new life to the dead. This is God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and our Father, the God worth waiting for, and working for, and praying to and rejoicing with.
This is the God that our ancestors have worshipped in this building since 1853 and in two previous meetinghouses on this site going back to 1764. This is the God we pray will bring many to himself in this place in the years to come, so that in this place 150 years from now people, will hear the Good News of his love.
And so we rejoice and sing.
The Reverend Dr. Richard L. Floyd.
A sermon given at First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, Massachusetts on
December 14, 2003.
“I planted, Apollos watered, but it is God who gives the growth.”
I am honored that Dick asked me to preach on this special day. He has been my friend and colleague, mentor and frequent conversation partner for many years. I give thanks to God for him.
Dick has been a faithful minister of the Word of God among you for over two decades and now he and you come to the end of that ministry as he retires. I have just gone through this myself, so I speak from experience when I say it is a time fraught with meaning. Like a trapeze artist who lets go of one trapeze but hasn’t quite grabbed a hold of the next, the transition from ministry to retirement can be at the same time exhilarating and frightening. And I daresay the analogy holds true for a congregation saying goodbye to their pastor and wondering about the future without him.
As we give thanks for Dick’s ministry, it might be profitable for us to consider what Christian ministry is all about. What is a minister? A minister is, quite simply, one who acts on behalf of another. We see this usage in European politics, where governments have a foreign minister or a minister of finance, for example. Such ministers represent and speak on behalf of their governments. Their authority derives from those they represent. It is not their own.
In much the same way our ministry belongs to Jesus Christ and we represent him as his ministers. Our ministry isn’t a possession that belongs to us, but a call we obey, a service we carry out for another. It is easy to forget this, especially when one has been around as long as Dick and I have been. In our weaker moments we pastors can take on a King Louis XIV sense of self-importance. Recall how Louis said, “Après moi, le deluge: After me, the flood.” I shared with Dick some advice that your former area Minister Richard Sparrow gave me one time when I was worrying about what would happen after I left my pastorate of 22 years. He said, “Rick, it was Christ’s church when you got there, and it will be Christ’s church after you leave.” Which was to remind me that ministry always builds on the work of others. As Paul told the Corinthians, “I planted, Apollos watered, but it is God who gives the growth.”
Paul was addressing divisions in the Corinthian church. Although the Greek word for “divisions” is schismata, from which we get our English word “schism,” schismata does not really mean factions or parties. More precisely it means a “tear” as in a fabric, or like a run in a stocking. It seems the Corinthians have broken into quarrelling factions around their various leaders.
Paul admonishes them to overcome their differences and become united. The Greek word translated as “united” means literally to be “knit together,” the very same word found in Mark’s Gospel (1:19) when he is describing the mending of fishing nets. So we have a vivid image here that we miss in translation, the image of the church as a torn fabric that needs to be mended.
But the disunity of the Corinthian church is more the symptom of the disease rather than the disease itself. The actual disease is their false understanding of what the church is, and what the ministry is.
Paul gets a little sarcastic toward these followers of different leaders: “Has Christ been divided?” He asks them. “Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”
You see the problem? Have you ever known people who join a minister rather than a congregation? It happens! People join a minister because the minister is a spellbinding preacher or a compassionate pastor or an attractive personality. The problem is that when the minister in time shows the inevitable feet of clay they become disenchanted. Or when the minister moves on or retires their ties to the church are flimsy, because they have joined the leader and not the church.
That is what has happened in Corinth. Some have joined Apollos, a teacher who came after Paul in Corinth. Some have joined Peter. Some even regard Christ as their leader, as if he were just another human leader.
Some Corinthians have a magical understanding of their baptism, so that they have come to believe that the minister performing their baptism bestows more or less power depending how wise and spiritual he is. It is like someone here in Acton saying “I was baptized by Dick and not by Gail, so my baptism is better (or worse).” Or even more absurdly, somehow by baptism they would say, “I belong to Dick.” So Paul asks sarcastically, “Were you baptized in the name of Paul?”
And what is it that the Corinthians believe makes one leader better then another? The criterion seems to be the capacity to speak “eloquent words of wisdom.” Paul founded the church in Corinth by preaching the simple good news of God’s love and mercy in Jesus Christ, the message of the cross, the message of the forgiveness of sins. Paul’s message was not Paul himself, nor was it Paul’s wisdom or Paul’s rhetorical eloquence. His message was Jesus Christ and him crucified.
But the Corinthians have mistaken their leaders for the traveling sages of the time who were known for the beauty and cleverness of their speech. Paul wants to distance himself from these wise men, and he wants the Corinthians to know, by contrast, who he is, which is a minister of Jesus Christ.
“I am merely a messenger,” he says. “Don’t mistake the messenger for the message.” Don’t look to Paul’s eloquence or Paul’s wisdom, but to the Gospel. For the power of the cross is a power made perfect in weakness, a power that might be obscured by eloquence and human wisdom, but one that is brought to light by the miracle of being shown as powerful even in the weakness of the messenger, just as God displayed his awesome power in the weakness of the crucified one, who died on the cross for us.
There are still all manner of attractive and eloquent purveyors of religion and philosophy around. You only need a TV remote to find good examples. And truth to tell, even in the church we are tempted to run after the wisdom of the age.
But if the church of Jesus Christ is to have vitality, integrity, and unity it will come out of its own life, not from the wisdom of the age, but from the power of the message God has given to us. And you and I and others like us in local congregations, in all our weakness, will be the bearers of that message and the living embodiment of its power. That is what a congregation is, for better or worse, the living embodiment of the Gospel.
Many people, perhaps all of us on some level, come to church to be taken care of, to be told what to do: by the Bible or the bishop or the pope or the newest book, somebody. If only the right leader would come along. But we see in the scriptures today that even the Apostle Paul struggled to get it across that it isn’t the messenger– it is the message, and it isn’t the leader– it is the church, the body of Christ, where the power of God resides through grace and the gifts of the Spirit. Paul had every right to be proud of the Corinthian church. After all he was the founding pastor. When he says, “I planted,” he means just that. But that is not all he says. He says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but it is God who gives the growth.” He knew the power was God’s power through the Gospel and not Paul’s power through personality, talents or training.
That has been one of the gifts you have been given in Dick Olmsted, a gifted leader who has never forgot for a minute that it isn’t his Yale Ph.D. or his keen intelligence or any other human attributes or endowments that have made him a good minister of the Word of God.
As today’s political consultants would say, he has stayed on message. And Dick is well aware that the message applies to him as well as to you. To understand means to “stand under”, and Dick had stood under the Word of God, and preached to you as one forgiven sinner to another. He never forgot the great Reformation insight that we are at the same time sinners and justified before God, which is why he ministered to each and all of you without fear or favor. Because he knows that he is a minister, one who represents another, and a messenger, one who brings good news, and a witness, one who is always pointing beyond himself.
In 1995 my family and I traveled to Colmar, France to see Matthias Grünwald’s painting of the crucifixion in the famous Isenheim altarpiece triptych. A reproduction of this masterpiece hung over Karl Barth’s desk as he wrote his Church Dogmatics. One hangs over my desk, and one hangs over Dick’s desk. I chose it as the cover of my little book on the cross and atonement. It is not a pretty picture, but it is a powerful one.
In the painting John the Baptist points at the crucified Christ. Now this is not realism or historical accuracy, as we know that John had lost his head long before Good Friday. But Grünwald is trying to convey a deeper truth than the facts. He is depicting John as the witness to Jesus Christ. John’s pointing finger is strangely elongated, to draw your eyes to it and then to where it points.
Grünwald shows John as the representative Christian, the one who always points beyond himself or herself to Christ. And the Christ he points to is not Christ the teacher, Christ the prophet, or Christ the moral example, but the crucified Christ. For whatever else we might say about Jesus Christ, the one thing we must say is that he was crucified for us, and was raised on the third day as a divine vindication of the power of his weakness. Christ’s atoning death does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, freeing us from sin and death. To be a witness to the crucified Christ is to insist that God’s love is stronger than human hate, and God’s grace is greater than human sin. That truth remains a scandal now as it was then, because it challenges the wisdom of this age as to what constitutes real power and authority.
Because in the topsy-turvy values of the Gospel the first shall be last and the last first, the exalted will be humbled, and the humble exalted, the poor will be filled and the rich sent empty away. In God’s economy power is made perfect in weakness, and for all our accomplishments, in the end we have nothing to offer to God but our sins. These are not the values of Donald Trump’s Apprentice, to say the least. And neither is it the wisdom of the age, but it is the message of the gospel, the message that a minister of the Word of God is called to deliver.
So you can see that this ministry of witness to Christ can be very frustrating in human terms. Which is why I took up cooking years ago as a hobby, because when you cook you see results right away. The meal either comes out or it doesn’t. When people enjoy it you feel satisfaction and you get compliments. But being a minister of the Word of God isn’t like this. This pointing to Christ doesn’t usually manifest in immediate results. It’s more like being a gardener, a matter of planting and watering, and letting God use what you have done for his purposes, which remain mysterious. For you never know what seeds you sow, or who is ready to hear what word and when, a word that might even change their life.
In Stephen Ministry we teach that ministry is process-oriented and not results-oriented, and at first this really frustrates the Stephen ministers. Because we Americans are not good at waiting for God to give the growth. We want dominion and power and control. We want to force our will on things. The wisdom of this age demands results, and even ministers give up and give in and talk about our congregation’s attendance, or our budgets, or our additions, or our programs, or our new members. And don’t get me wrong, I am always grateful for any visible signs of vitality in Christ’s church.
But the truth about the church is that we can have the most beautiful building, and the biggest endowment, and the most eloquent preacher with a string of degrees after his name, and we can be so friendly we will melt the snow right off the roof, but if the message of Jesus Christ and him crucified, the message that God loves and forgives us, isn’t preached and heard and lived it all counts for nothing. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
And in each generation, God raises up witnesses, messengers, ministers, like Dick Olmsted, for which we give thanks. Some will plant, others will water, but it is God who gives the growth. Amen.
(The Reverend Dr. Richard L. Floyd, Pastor Emeritus of First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, Congregational, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, on June 19, 2005 at the Acton Congregational Church, on the occasion of the retirement of the Reverend Dr. Richard Olmsted.)
(I preached this sermon on the Sunday after the 9/11 attacks. In it I said: “Let us not dignify this event with the term ‘war.’ These terrorists are not soldiers, but criminals and murderers and should be dealt with as such by the constitutional processes of sovereign states and international law. What we need here is not revenge, but justice.” I wonder what the world would look like today if our leaders had not thought of it as a war?)
This is the third time I have been called upon to speak this week, to try to put into words what we are thinking and feeling in response to the extraordinary events of last Tuesday. We had an ecumenical service Tuesday evening at First Baptist Church sponsored by the Pittsfield Area Council of Churches, and on Friday we had a service of prayer and mourning at noon here at First Church in response to President Bush’s declaration of that day as a national day of remembrance. I will say today what I have said on both those occasions, that it is good you are here! It is good to be together with our neighbors and fellow citizens at a time like this, and it is good to be quite intentionally in the presence of God in public worship.
To be together in community and before God is a healthy response. Abraham Lincoln once spoke of the “better angels of our nature.” I think being together before God is responding to the better angels of our nature, and it is my fervent prayer that we Americans will continue to respond to what is best in us, as opposed to what is worst.
We have seen extraordinary acts of courage and heroism in these days. But we have also seen acts of cowardice and mean–spiritedness. Since Tuesday New York City firefighters and police have responded to over ninety false alarms and bomb scares a day in contrast to the typical seven. Throughout our country mosques have been stoned and vandalized. Our Arab–American neighbors fear for their security and safety.
It is often true in history that evil begets evil, and I worry about that now. Hate can spawn more hate. A time such as this is a critical time for us all, individually and as a nation. It is, among other things, a holy time, in that it is a time when we can be in touch with what is deepest and most abiding in our lives. We are at a tipping point that can determine both the path and the direction we will go. Billy Graham at the service on Friday at the National Cathedral said that we can either implode as a nation our show strength. I think that is the choice. And I trust as people of faith we will have the resources that can help us choose the good and not the evil, and to be on the side of life and not death.
We have looked evil in the face this week. We have seen the slaughter of innocents in the thousands. As Mayor Guiliani said on Tuesday night, when the death toll is finally counted “it will be more than we can bear.” It is hard to take in the damage that this act of terrorism has caused, and hard as well, to accept the impetus behind it. It is hard to accept that there are people out there who hate us and want to kill us.
I don’t know about you, but I found it difficult to get much done this week. I found myself in a daze. I kept returning again and again to the TV. I was both repulsed and transfixed by the unfolding events. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. How many times have we seen the pictures of that second plane crashing into the World Trade Center? There have been times when I find myself suddenly choked up, or silently weeping. Wednesday night on TV I saw the changing of the guard a Buckingham Palace, and the British military band was playing the Star Spangled Banner. I completely lost it.
So before we do much else, we all have to somehow take in this act of terror, and acknowledge it and the feelings that go with it. It will require some time, but unless we do take time to absorb the shock of it, we will not be able to do what we are called to do next, whatever that is.
Nancy Taylor, our new Conference Minister and President of the Massachusetts Conference, wrote to all the clergy on Tuesday. Among her reassuring words were these: “I encourage you to pause in the face of the enormity of what our country and our world is just now trying to comprehend. Take time to talk to each other about your feelings; to share how you will address the events of this day with your children; and to allow yourself to cry, pray, and cling to each other and to the God whose heart was the first to break when the first airplane crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City . . . and whose heart is breaking still.”
Take time, she says, and she is wise in saying this. I want to tell you how much her new ministry has meant to me this week. I have never met her, but within hours of the first crash, I had from her a thoughtful pastoral letter, with scripture and prayer. She has been a parish minister and brings those good pastoral instincts to her new position. So I share with you what she shared with me, the admonition to take the time to really face what has happened, and to do it in the context of faith, with scripture and prayer as resources. The scripture Nancy Taylor sent me was the 46th Psalm, which I had already been reading. It is one of my favorites.
“God is our refuge and strength,” it begins, and then it goes on to say, that because God is our refuge and our strength, “we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea.” Well, the earth has changed, the strong towers have fallen, the nations are in an uproar . . . but WE WILL NOT FEAR!
How can we say that? Only faith can say, “We will not fear.” This is not wooly–headed optimism, or denial of harsh reality, but faith. The reality is that the world is a dangerous place, bad things not only do but have happened to innocent people, the ordinary rhythms of life have been shattered by an extraordinary act of evil, and it is not over. So fear is the sane, natural and honest response to such earth–shattering and life–changing events, and we have known fear, and we have felt fear, felt it in our gut along with anger, sadness, and pain.
So how can faith say, “we will not fear?” We can only say “we will not fear,” if we can say “God is our refuge and our strength” Therefore! We will not fear. The setting of Psalm 46 is a world turned upside down:
“Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”
This is not just trouble, this is TROUBLE with a capital T. The language of the psalm is the language of cosmic upheaval. The waters are the waters of the firmament above and beneath the earth; they are the primordial waters, the symbol of chaos, the tohu wabohu of nothingness. And the mountains that shake into the heart of the sea are not just any mountains, but the thresholds and foundations that hold up the world. In the psalm’s vision the waters above and the waters below, the waters that God pushed back on the third day of creation, threaten to flood back in. The roaring and foaming waters are more than a storm, they are chaos, a sign of all that threatens God’s order.
Many Biblical scholars think Psalm 46 may have been written when the Assyrian King Sennacherib came to conquer Jerusalem in 701, but it hardly matters what the original catastrophe was, the psalm speaks to every catastrophe which is earth-shattering and fear–inducing. The mythologized cosmic TROUBLE of the Psalm is of a kind with all the trouble we see, whether it is Sennacherib at your gates with his whole army or terrorists flying jumbo jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Trouble is often where faith is born. We find faith in a God who is our refuge and strength, because only in trouble do we need a God who is our refuge and strength. Frequently it is only when we have our confidence knocked out from under us, that we are we ready for the Word of God.
And so it is that the therefore that comes before “we will not fear” refers to God our refuge and strength. Our lack of fear is conditional; it is trust in God alone, rather than some easy calm of our own devising. It is not the false security of walls or weapons. No missile shield defense system can give us this kind of confidence.
This confidence in God is captured in Martin Luther’s hymn based on Psalm 46: “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” which was then put into English by Thomas Carlyle as “A safe stronghold our God is still” and, better known in America, as “A Mighty Fortress is our God” by Frederick Hedge. In any version of the hymn, God the fortress stands in contrast to all strongholds built with human hands. Listen to this: “And though this world with devils filled, should threaten to undo us. We will not fear, for God has willed His truth to triumph through us. The prince of darkness grim, We tremble not for him, His rage we can endure, For lo! his doom is sure, One little word shall fell him.”
We see in Psalm 46 another vivid contrast, that between the roaring, tumultuous waters of chaos and the “river whose streams make glad the city of God.” Where before God restrains the water, here God sends the water for a life–giving purpose. God tames the waters of chaos and makes them bring forth life and peace.
What is the alternative vision to chaos, disruption and desolation? Listen with me: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved.” How like John the Divine’s vision of the river of life describes it as flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb. “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.” (Revelation 22:1, 2a)
Nancy Taylor writes, “It seems to me that we Christians, above all other people, are equipped to face the evil and the terror that have befallen us, because we know that there is another world beyond this world, where all weeping and pain shall cease, where evil does not reign, and where we will find ourselves in the warm embrace of our God.”
But God does not ignore evil. At the center of our faith is the symbol of the cross. How significant that our most important Christian symbol is not the scales of justice, nor the tablets of the law, but the cross on which we human beings crucified the Lord of Glory. And it is at the foot of the cross that we can best understand this evil act, for the cross addresses human beings not at our best but at our worst. There, at the cross human evil collided with divine love. There, Jesus stretched out his arms and died, with forgiveness on his lips, that the whole world might come into his loving embrace.
And there, at the cross of Christ, is the power that created and sustains the universe. A power more powerful than evil and hate. Evil and hate killed Jesus, but he didn’t stay dead! Osama bin Laden is a formidable adversary, a rich powerful man bent on evil, but as Luther said of the evil one, “we tremble not for him,” nor for any other terrorist.
Let us be clear about what happened on Tuesday. Terrorists committed mass murder on innocent civilians. There is a lot of talk about war, and it feels like war, and the pictures from the devastation look like war, and it may take the resolve of war to address terrorism. But if this is a war it is only a war in the metaphorical sense of say, the war on poverty or the war on drugs. Let us not dignify this event with the term “war.” These terrorists are not soldiers, but criminals and murderers and should be dealt with as such by the constitutional processes of sovereign states and international law. What we need here is not revenge, but justice.
Their intention was to create terror, to destroy our way of life. And their act of evil can only threaten our way of life, our free institutions, our capacity to travel and meet, and go about our business without fear, if we let them! If we let them make us hate and fear they win. But we will not let them. Because “God is in the midst of the city, it shall not be moved.” God is with the innocent victims in New York and Washington, God is with the relief workers, and God is with us, right here, right now, with you and me in our broken-heartedness, as we face a world forever changed. But we can face it, and we will face it, with character and courage and faith, for God is in the midst of us, our refuge and strength; therefore we will not fear.” Amen.
A sermon preached at the First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, on September 16, 2001. This sermon was also published in “He Comes, the Broken Heart to Bind:” Reflections on September 11, 2001. Edited by Frederick R. Trost, Confessing Christ. 2001.