Monday, March 14, 2016

Preaching from the heart

Before I preach, I pray that God's Word will spring from my heart. I hope that my God-filled heart will speak to other hearts.

But before I talk about the heart, I must talk about the stomach. My stomach. The subject might be an indelicate one, perhaps too personal to discuss here. But I will, nevertheless.

This weekend, I suffered from stomach flu. 

By Sunday morning, I thought I was well enough to go to church for worship. I need weekly worship. And yesterday I was eager to preach a sermon that I felt strongly about, a message that I thought the Holy Spirit wanted me to deliver.

Early yesterday, I was preparing a simple outline. Outlining is one way I further internalize my research, study, prayer and reflection on the Scripture readings for Sunday. I need 12 to 15 hours a week to prepare, or over prepare, for preaching a Sunday sermon.

About seven, my wife Penny returned home from a walk and came into the bedroom, where I was working on my lap desk. How was I feeling? she wondered. So, so, I responded.

She urged me to stay home from church and not expose people to the virus. And I should rest and drink plenty of fluids. She spoke to me in love.

What shall I do about the sermon? I asked myself.

I did not want to ask my assistant, Father Jonathan, to deliver an impromptu sermon, although he would have done so and done so ably.

So, I decided to send him something to read to the congregation. 

I scrambled, with only a short time left before the first service. I gathered my notes, called up from my head and heart thoughts and feelings related to the texts and typed up the sermon.

The result was less a sermon, more a bare outline.

(Before I preach on Sundays, I get up at 4.50am and pray; think; sometimes, fret; and then write a short outline on a card. Later, I place the card in the breast pocket of my clerical shirt. I never take the card out and read from it. The card simply reminds me that I am to speak for God from my heart, that deepest part of my being.)

I titled yesterday's outline, or sermon sketch, “God makes a way out of no way.”

The words of that title are not original to me but come from a preacher who always spoke from his heart, a man who was and still is my homiletical exemplar and inspiration, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The words are from his sermon, “God is able.” 

This sermon is worth reading, as are all of Dr. King's sermons, although I believe sermons are far more compelling when they are heard. The difference between reading a sermon and listening to one is the the difference between reading Shakespeare's Hamlet and hearing and seeing it come to life on stage.

I have attached my sermon sketch below. You can also listen to Father Jonathan delivering it, and beautifully, at:

As I looked over the sketch, I realize once more that words on paper are not sermons. God makes the sermon, the Word, out of the words on the page, which are spoken by the preacher. The real preacher in not the man or woman in the pulpit or on the stage or standing amid the people. The real preacher is the Holy Spirit, who turns our human words into the lively Word of God.

In the sermon, God is speaking to his beloved people not just through the head (or mouth) of the preacher but also, and most important of all, through the heart of the preacher.

Yesterday, in introducing it, Father Jonathan said that my sermon was brief. It is. It is only a skeleton. Little more than that. A skeleton of human words awaiting God’s flesh, muscle and breath of life.

God makes a way out of now way

Isaiah 43.16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3.4b-14
John 12.1-8

There is no way. There are times when we say, “No way.” No way will I overcome this illness. No way will my spouse stop drinking. No way can I go on living after the death of my loved one.

The people of Israel thought there was no way out of slavery in Egypt; but God called Moses who led Israel out.

And then, with Pharaoh's armies chasing them and the people of God standing at the edge of the Red Sea, there was no way that they would be able to cross the sea on foot and then travel through the wilderness to the promised land. But they did.

And now, generations after the Exodus of Israel from Egypt, the prophet Isaiah reminds God's people of God’s mighty acts of salvation, and Israel is  once again is saying, “No way.”

Isaiah speaks for the Lord. “Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters…I am about to do a new thing.”

Israel is in bondage again, this time in Babylon. Earlier, the Babylonians had defeated the Israelites. They had devastated Jerusalem, and then led the defeated Israelites into exile and captivity in Babylon. Surely, they must have said, “No way will we go home again.”

But, in Babylon, the prophet speaks for God to his fellow captives.

God says, “I will do a new thing…I will make a way in the wilderness, rivers in the desert….I will give drink to my chosen people, the people I formed for myself that they might declare my praise.”

And God fulfills his promise to his people. He does that “new thing.” He acts through King Cyrus of Assyria and defeats the Babylonians. God frees Israel, and God’s people return home to Jerusalem.

As God did for our forebears, Israel, so God does for us. He does that “new thing.” He sends Jesus, his own son, to save us from our Egypt and our slavery to evil, sin, and death and to lead us out of exile home to him.

Jesus, who is anointed for his death today in the gospel, confronts sin, evil, death. In this way, God shows his love for us. And Jesus overcomes our enemies, and he sets us free that we might declare God’s praise.

Dr. Martin Luther King tells the story of how one night, in the midst of his leadership of the Civil Rights movement, he received a phone call. It was yet another threat. The caller said that he would shoot and kill Dr. King and would blow up his house with his wife and children inside.

Dr. King tells how he sat in his kitchen late that night and trembled. He prayed to God. He told God he was terrified. That he was weak. That he wanted to quit the struggle for securing the constitutional rights of black people in America. And God answered his prayer.

God reminded him that “…there is a benign Power in the universe that makes a way where there is no way and transforms our dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.”

Friends, God loves us.

And when you are tempted to say, No way, remember the Good News: God will make a way out of your no way.

Thanks be to God.