1001) Coming Up With the Words (b)

     (…continued)  God himself has promised to be in these words, inadequate and unpolished as they might be from me or any other preacher, or, as unwanted as they might sometimes be by you.  In Isaiah 55:10-11, God says about his word: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish,… so is my Word; it does not return to me empty, but it will accomplish what I desire and it will achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

     That promise encourages a preacher.  As I said, the only thing right now between us and God is words, but God has promised to use those words to create and sustain saving faith.  The words of the Scripture readings on Sunday morning may be hard to understand, the words of the sermon may not be all that interesting, and the words in the sacraments may be the same old thing every time.  But God has promised to be in those words and to use them to keep us in the faith; that is, if we hear them.  Jesus said (John 10:27-28), “My sheep hear my voice; I know them and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one can take them out of my hand.”  Those words contain both a promise and a command.  The command for you is to be listening to that word of God, to keep putting yourself where that word can be heard.  The promise is that we will then hear God’s call and be able to follow him into eternal life.

     As I think back, it was, I believe, that promise of eternal life that drew me into the ministry.  I have often thought about what it means to be called into the ministry.  There is, of course, the Letter of Call from a congregation, but before that, even before seminary, there is a call from God.  I don’t know how that works, but I remember feeling it already in grade school.  Going into the ministry was not ever my only plan, or even my main plan, but it was always there as a possibility, even at nine years old.  

     I’m quite sure it had something to do with this eternal hope.  I remember being profoundly affected as a child by the presence of death.  I remember very clearly the deaths of elderly relatives, I remember watching boats drag the Minnesota River for the body of a boy I knew at school, and I remember a couple boys from school who died in car accidents.  I remember staring for a long time at their empty desks the next day.

       I remember one death in particular.  I was about ten years old and my dad was selling milk truck tanks.  A young milk hauler, still in his twenties, drove up from Iowa with his wife to visit my folks on a Sunday and talk about buying a tank.  They spent the afternoon at our house and I remember the husband was a really nice guy.  And the next day he was dead, killed in an accident with the truck that needed a new tank.  I thought about that for days.  It had such an impact on me that forty years later I can still remember his name, even though I knew him for only a few hours.  His name was Ed Mitchell.

     In Sunday School I had always heard about how Jesus rose from the dead and how he promised that we too could rise from the dead and live in heaven forever if we believed in him.  And I remember thinking, yes, this is what we need, this is important!  People should pay attention to this!  How could anyone ignore it?  Don’t they know that life can end anytime, like it did for Ed Mitchell and my dead friends?  If there is an opportunity for another life, people should want to know everything there is to know about that.  My pastor knew all about it, and that was what I wanted.  I wanted to be like him, I thought, and not only know all there is to know, but also to tell others about it.  What could be more important?  These thoughts from 40 years ago are still fresh in my mind.  What makes a kid in grade school think so much about that?  I don’t know, but I think there was already in all of that something of the call of God.

     Now, 40 years later, I still see the central purpose of my work as opening your eyes a little bit each week to see this eternal hope, found only in Jesus.  Day to day life can leave us shackled to the concerns of this world, and this world becomes all we see and think about.  We forget that we are going to be here only a little while, and then it will be off to somewhere else.  But we must keep this in mind.  We need to be prepared.  We need to keep our eyes on Jesus and listen to what he has to say to us.  The disciples said, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  Where else could we go for such a hope and promise?  There is no place else, no place else to go in all the world where we hear can from someone who has died and then risen from the dead to show us the way to another life.  Each Sunday as we gather to worship, we gather to hear the words that remind us of that eternal promise and call us to faith.  As a pastor I am called to a ministry of words, not words spoken in a vacuum, but words from me, to you, in this place, on this day.  And God has promised to use those words to work faith in your heart.

     One more thing– even though coming up with the words is the most difficult part of my work, it is the part I enjoy the most and in which I find the most fulfillment.

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I Corinthians 2:1-5  —  When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.  For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.  I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling.  My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.

I Corinthians 9:16  —  For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach.  Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!

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Lord, what you do not do remains undone.  If you will not help, I will gladly give it up.  The cause is not mine.  Therefore, I seek no glory in it.  I will cheerfully be your mask and disguise if only you will do the work.  Amen.

–Martin Luther  (1483-1546)

martin luthers grave, martin luther biography

Martin Luther’s pulpit in the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.  Luther’s tomb is at the base of the pulpit.

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1000) Coming Up With the Words (a)

I was ordained thirty-six years ago today.  The following is from a sermon I gave when my congregation celebrated my first 25 years in the ministry.

     One day when my son was about nine years old, he and several of the neighborhood kids were playing in our yard.  I was also outside, working on the car.  I knew that one of the kids was a bit of a bully, so I had my eye on him.  Just as I expected, before long he was pushing the other kids around, causing fights, and making an all around nuisance of himself.  I went over and told him to quit.  He behaved for a while, but then was back at it.  So I talked to him again.  This time I spoke more forcefully and threatened to send him home.  He got the message and the kids then played together without any more trouble.  As I was walking away, I heard him say, “Gee, why is your dad such a crab?”  Without hesitating even a moment, my son said to him, “Well, he’s a minister, you know.”  What?

     I had to think about that.  I was used to people having many different notions of what a minister is and what a minister does, but that was a new one to me.  A crab?  With that in mind I would like say a few things about being minister, on this anniversary of my ordination.  I’ll try not to be too crabby.

     Martin Luther once wrote a little piece on what it means to be ordained in which he said:  “If we know of a godly man, we choose him and, on the strength of the Word which is ours, we give him authority to preach the Word and administer the sacraments.  This is what it means to be ordained.”

     On the strength of the Word, as Luther says, the church first of all ordained me.  Then you, as members of this congregation and the other congregations I have served, called me to be your pastor.  And then, it says, you gave me the authority to preach the Word.  WORDS; that’s what you want from ministers most of all, isn’t it?  Words.  In every church survey I’ve ever seen, and from every call committee I’ve ever faced, I have heard the same thing– what congregations want most of all is a pastor who can preach, who can put words together.  You want the right words at the right time, words that can inspire faith, words that can explain the faith, words that can make clear the difficult words of the Bible, words that can challenge you, and words that can give you comfort and hope.  You want words, don’t you?

     The reason you want that is because that is how God himself has set things up.  Have any of you ever seen God?  Neither have I.  But I believe God has called me to be ordained, called me to stand between you and God, called me to lead you in worship each week as we come into God’s presence, and called me to help you in your faith in God.  And what has God given me to work with in order to do all that?  Words.  Just words.  In the Bible, we read all over the place that we are saved by faith.  But how do you get faith?  Romans 10:17 says, “Faith comes by hearing” the message, and “the message is heard through the word of Christ.”  Words.  We hear about God and are connected to God by words.

       Do you know what is the hardest part of this job?  The hardest part is when the words don’t come.  The words aren’t always there on command, and sometimes the more desperately I want just the right words, the less likely they are to be there for me.  I did not type these words into my computer until yesterday afternoon.  I was starting over on this sermon; starting over again.  And that was not because I waited until the last minute.  I had been working on this all week.  But my trash can was full of false starts and abandoned notes, and the delete button on my computer was almost wore out.  The words weren’t coming.  That’s how it goes some weeks.  

     If you are in a conversation and have nothing to say, you can just keep your mouth shut.  People might even appreciate that more than anything.  But whether or not I have anything to say, I still have to be up here every Sunday morning, with a whole bunch of words, ready to go. 

     Not only that, but there are other times in a pastor’s week when one searches for words that aren’t there:  at the scene of a fatal car accident, when someone tells you the grim diagnosis from the doctor that their cancer is terminal, or when told by a couple who have been active in the parish that their marriage is ending.  Pastors are called to proclaim the Word, ‘in season and out of season,’ Paul said to Timothy.  You have every right to expect words from me, but sometimes the words don’t come very easy.  This is the most difficult part of my calling.

      There’s more.  My words are not always appreciated.  You know the old line, “Talk is cheap.”  And there is another old line, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  The meaning is that words are unimportant and have no impact.  Words are important and they do affect us, but sometimes we do all we can to resist their power– especially if the words are in a sermon.

      Sermons are not the best-loved form of communication.  If someone is going on and on with too much unwanted advice, we might say to them, “Don’t go preaching to me.”  I even get this from my wife once in a while.  Yesterday morning she asked me a question.  It was one of those questions that pushed all the wrong buttons.  So I started in giving her a whole bunch of words about what I thought on the subject.  And what did she say?  She said, “I just asked for your opinion; I did not ask for a sermon.”  Yeah.  A sermon.  Who ever wants one of those?  Not only that, but ‘Silence is golden,’ says an old bit of wisdom, and that is backed up by the Bible itself.  Ecclesiastes 5:2 says “Let your words be few,” and Proverbs 10:19 says, “When words are many, sin is not absent; but he who holds his tongue is wise.”  But how is a preacher supposed to manage that?  We have to talk.  Like I said, the toughest part of this job is coming up with all those words.  (continued…)

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I Timothy 4:1-5  —  In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead,and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge:  Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage— with great patience and careful instruction.  For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine.  Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.  They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.  But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

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O Lord, you see  how unworthy I am to fill so great and important an office.  Were it not for your counsel, I would have utterly failed in it long ago.  Therefore, I call upon you for guidance.  Gladly indeed will I give my heart and my voice to this service.  I want to teach the people.  I myself want constantly to seek and study your Word, and eagerly meditate upon it.  Use me as your instrument.  Only, dear Lord, do not forsake me; for if I am left alone, I will most certainly ruin everything.  Amen.

–Martin Luther  (1483-1546)

229) Pastors and Their Congregations

From The Clergy of America: Anecdotes, 1869, J. B. Lippincott Publishers, Philadelphia

     Dr. Mather Byles, of Boston, in a period of great political excitement, was asked why he did not preach politics.  He replied, “In the first place, I do not understand politics.  In the second place, you all do, every one of you.  In the third place, you have politics all week; pray, let one day in seven be devoted to religion.  In the fourth place, I am engaged in a work of infinitely greater importance.  Give me any subject to preach on that is of more consequence than the truths I bring to you, and I will preach on it next Sunday.”  (p. 207)

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     The wisdom of Dr. John Rogers of New York was evident in his way of opposing error, and in his dislike of persecution.  When he was once strongly urged by some of the officers of his church to preach against the errors of a particular sect, and to warn his people against them by name, he firmly refused, saying, “Brethren, you must excuse me; I cannot reconcile it with my sense either of policy or duty to oppose these people from the pulpit, other than by preaching the truth plainly and faithfully.  I believe them to be in error; but let us out-preach, out-pray, and out-live them, and we need not fear.”  (p. 203)

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     Rev. Solomon Allen, a most excellent minister, labored in the beginning of this century in the western part of the state of New York.  He did not commence his ministry till he was fifty years of age.  His zeal was irrepressible, and his unselfishness exceedingly striking.  He endured great hardships, making every possible sacrifice in the pursuit of his great object.  And such was the happy effect, that many felt as did one avowed enemy of the Gospel who had to admit, “This is a thing I cannot understand.  This old gentleman, who could be as rich as he pleases, comes here and does all these things for nothing.  There must be something in his religion.”  (p. 200)

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     A young minister was settled in a large and popular congregation, under very flattering circumstances.  The church and people had settled him in the belief that he was a young man of more than ordinary talents, and with the expectation of his becoming a distinguished man.  After a year of two, when the novelty of the thing had worn off, the current seemed to change, and the feeling prevailed that Rev. B. was not, nor likely to be, quite what they had expected.  He did not grown as they thought he would, nor did he perform the amount of labor which was needed to build up the church and interest the congregation.  Things dragged heavily.  The young man felt the influence of the chill atmosphere which thus surrounded him.  His spirits sunk, his health failed, and it was soon whispered around that Rev. B. would probably have to leave– he was not the man for the place.  He was not the man of talents they had anticipated.
While things were in this state, at a meeting of the church when the pastor was absent, (perhaps one called to see what should be done), Mr. O., an intelligent and influential member, arose and said:  “Brethren, I think we have been in the fault respecting our minister.  I think that he is a young man of superior talents, and will one day be a distinguished man.  But we have not sustained him and encouraged him as we should.  We have been standing and looking on, expecting him to raise both himself and us to eminence.  Now, let us adopt a different course.  Let us encourage our minister with our prayers, our sympathies, and our efforts, and let us speak of him with esteem and confidence to others.”
The thing was agreed upon.  The leading men set the example, and very soon everyone was speaking in favor of Rev. B. His people visited with him, and sympathized with him; and soon people out of the society began to remark how Rev. B. was rising in the estimation of his people.  
     The young man felt the change.  The cold, damp chill with which he was surrounded, and which was benumbing the energies of his soul, was changed by the influence of such kindly beams, and a warm atmosphere came over him.  His spirits rose, his health returned, his energies awoke, and he showed to all that he had within him the elements of a man.  Several revivals attended his labors, and he was firmly established in the affections of the people.  (p. 459-460)

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I Timothy 1:12  —  I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service. 

II Timothy 4:1-4  —  In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge:  Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage– with great patience and careful instruction.  For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine.  Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.  They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.

II Timothy 4:5  —  But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

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Martin Luther’s prayer for God’s help in his ministry:
O Lord, you see you unworthy I am to fill so great and important an office.  Were it not for your counsel, I would have utterly failed in it long ago.  Therefore, I call upon you for guidance.  Gladly indeed will I give my heart and my voice to this service.  I want to teach the people.  I myself want constantly to seek and study your Word, and eagerly meditate upon it.  Use me as your instrument.  Only, dear Lord, do not forsake me; for if I am left alone, I will most certainly ruin everything.  Amen.