Thursday, July 21, 2011


I remember the words of John Donne: "There are light hours enough in each day for a man to complete his whole journey intended by Thee."

It makes me think of expectations. The expectations we have of ourselves, the expectations we have of others, the expectations others have of us, and the expectations we think others have of us, and the expectations others think we have of them. And, that makes John Donne's words seem so wonderful, because these words reveal a way of freedom from all these expectations and anticipations of what is expected and suggest that there is an ultimately gracious expectation that overcomes all else - the expectation of God that we live within the gracious provisions and bounds set out for us that happen to be not what we expected or what others expected of us, but just what we need and desire in the depths of our being.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Thinking About Preaching

Sunday after Sunday for most every Sunday for the past 22 years I have led or helped lead worship and preached a sermon to a group of people gathered for worship in a church. Since July of 2006, I have shared the preaching/worship leading with two other pastors, so that one time a month and sometimes two times a month I would not preach. But, preaching sermons is something that is just a part of my life.

Now that I am not going to be preaching this coming Sunday, I am stopping to think about preaching on this day when I would normally start thinking about what I would be preaching this coming Sunday.

Preaching has become for me the end of a process that I go through each week in which I engage in a reflection on different parts of the Scripture as these scriptures relate to my experience in life: both experiences I have had and experiences that are being formed in the present. But, it gets beyond the text of scriptures, or usually it does. At some point, I begin to feel some sense of engaging with a power beyond me; at some point, I begin to feel that I am finding some freedom from my own ideas, though I always must rely on my ideas to express what I am finding in this experience of the spirit.

At some point, if the process produces something that gives hope and begins to open a path of trsnformation in life, I end up finding that I am prone to assert my ideas, and in a strong sense, most every sermon on the first run or two simply has too much self-assertion in it. It is through working through this first one or two versions that I am working through my self towards something more than self. What I mean is that in the first round or two of writing sermons, I seem to usually have this desire to put forward a really sharp idea of mine or demonstrate something about a peculiar view I have or throw out a criticism or two of other's views. In the second round, I begin to separate the wheat from the chaff. And, if I really come to a sermon worth preaching, it is usually after I feel my self fading towards the end of the week in the sermon preparation process because I get so interested in communicating something about seeking a real transformation of our selves in faith that I lose a desire to assert or put forward my self and my ideas.

As I write these words, I realize that I usually don't get to "stage 3" of sermon preparations. Most of my sermons get preached somewhere in stage 2 and many have gotten preached while still in stage 1. But, these days, I am working harder until I get some freedom from self in this process. Last week, I worked hard but didn't quite get to clarity between two different messages from the passage in 2 Corinthians. I posted one sermon I had written out beforehand, but I had another one prepared as well. And, I couldn't find the one message that brought them together and I didn't feel like just preaching one or the other. So, I just stood up and tried to bring it together in my talking. I was doing well at first, but then I got off track by not letting the message I had started with carry on. I switched gears to the second message. Well, someone might have heard something worth hearing in the somewhat disjointed talk that highlighted two distinct parts of Paul's words without being able to find that powerful way of expressing the one message waiting to be preached.

So, did I fail on Sunday in the sermon? I don't think so. Because even though it lacked coherence, and certainly could have had a better movement and clearer theme, I did have my focus on communicating something to others that could really help us awaken to God's transforming reality in this world and in our lives. I think I am going to rewrite and repreach from that passage in the next Sunday I preach. Because I was on the way to somewhere and didn't arrive. I didn't break through to what I was getting a glimpse of. I am going to go back, work my way through the two different messages I had prepared and then revisit that passage, and see if I can get a clearer sense in my spirit what I kept being inspired by but could never quite express. There is a liberating word that I have just about seen and just about heard, but it slipped away right as I tried to grasp it, express it. Maybe I need to quit trying so hard and relax my spirit.

We Have This Treasure in Earthen Vessels: 2 Corinthians 4:7-11

“But, we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed, perplexed, but not driven to despair, persecuted, but not forsaken, struck down, but not destroyed, always carrying in the body the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.”

Right before this passage, Paul has been celebrating the ministry God has given him and his co-workers. He writes in 2 Corinthians, chapter 4, vv. 5 & 6:
“For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said: “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

But, Paul wants the Corinthians to understand that the truth of the Gospel is God’s truth and God’s possession, not Paul’s truth or something Paul can claim control over. So, Paul makes a point of clarifying who he is as a preacher of the Gospel.
He says: “But, we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to the show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.” Paul was not called to preach his own ideas, or to simply preach about his own life or to put on display his personal talents. He was called to proclaim Christ, the Son of God, to the glory of God.
Paul says, as for me and my fellow ministers, we are just barely getting by; there is nothing terribly impressive about our lives, and certainly I don’t think many of you would want to go through what we are going through.

“For we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed, always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, that the life of Jesus might be manifest in our mortal flesh.”

With these words Paul is speaking of the history of his ministry – he was afflicted in every way. We know from other parts of scripture that he had to be passed over a city wall in a basket to escape being killed by authorities; other times, he was flogged with whips and put in prison; another time, he was stoned, and left for dead, and he speaks at the beginning of this letter of 2 Cors of having been close to death in Asia. In 2 Corinthians 11:23-26, Paul speaks of some of these hardships. Now, maybe in our day, speaking of going through so much trouble might be seen as bragging about one’s endurance and wanting attention for how much suffering one had gone through. But, back in those days, that was not how you improved your reputation as an apostle and minister of the Gospel. In fact, all of these sufferings of Paul were reasons that he was criticized. The common view at that time was that any minister who had the real anointing of God would have the blessings of God in his physical and material life as well (and that view may still exist in our culture). A true apostle, it was said, would have been victorious and strong in body, because God’s Spirit would be with him at all times. Well, Paul got beaten, arrested, almost executed, and on top of that he apparently had a sickness that caused him to be very unimpressive in physical appearance. No, Paul wasn’t the impressive looking and sounding religious leader they longed for. He wasn’t living “the good life;” he wasn’t walking 10 feet above the ground untouched by the troubles and struggles of human life.

And, in this holy letter to the Corinthians, Paul takes the time to make one point very clearly:

And, I’ll circle back around with a second point: WHAT GOD DOES FOR ME COMES AS A BY-PRODUCT OF WHAT GOD DOES THROUGH ME.

The false religion that Paul is opposing was teaching that the Gospel was all about what God can do for me and you. The false religion was ashamed of human frailty; and preached that human beings that were struggling with confusion and ailments and all sorts of weaknesses and tragedies were not faithful to God. False religion takes success as a sure sign of God’s favor, and defeat and struggle as a sure sign of God’s rejection. Sometimes defeat does come to us because of our sin; and sometimes success comes to us because of our faithfulness; but so often good things don’t necessarily come to the holy; and bad things often come to the holy as well as to the unholy. Jesus gave a strong reminder of this when he spoke of God’s blessings come to the evil as well as to the good.

But, Paul takes us a lot deeper than we are able to go with thoughts from our culture. Because he avoids talking about why good things come to bad people; or why bad things come to good people and all that. Paul takes us to a deeper level and silences all these questions.

Because, all the sudden, if you follow Paul’s words here, you become concerned with God’s will and what you can do to serve that will on earth. All the sudden, I am not worrying about whether I can have this or that, because the point of life is not what I can get but what God can do through me.

But, this is not an easy step from moving from concerns over my personal happiness to moving from concerns over God’s ministry being accomplished through me for others. CAN YOU AND I REALLY MAKE THIS MOVEMENT IN OUR LIVES – IN OUR MINDS, HEARTS AND ACTIONS. CAN I COME TO UNDERSTAND MYSELF FIRST OF ALL AS A CHANNEL OF GOD’S GIFTS TO OTHERS MORE THAN AS A RECIPIENT OF GOD’S GIFTS FOR ME?

But, some of us might wonder: “What about me? When am I going to be taken care of? When am I going to be blessed?” Today, we are going to put that question off, because of the way our passage goes. That’s the second point, that I speak of at the end.

Listen to Paul’s language here about a light of God that has shined in his heart, a light that he is saving and healing that he is letting shine through him to others.
But, as I tend to do more these days, I want to know how it is going to work. How can we hear these words and take them into our hearts and lives and really experience this transformation from seeing ourselves as recipients of God’s gifts to seeing ourselves as channels of Gods’ gifts to others.

Maybe a simple story will help. As a child, I remember the excitement of expecting gifts at Christmas time. My overwhelming viewpoint as a child at Christmas was the viewpoint of the recipient – the one who was expecting and excited about getting some good things. As an adult, my viewpoint at Christmas changed very much on gifts, especially when I had children. Because, I began seeing myself as a provider of gifts and the real excitement was about the giving and joy in seeing my little children receiving.

I think about all of us can relate to that and understand that transformation. And, I think this helps us understand what this transformation of faith is all about in our lives. There is certainly a time to be the recipient of gifts and to enjoy them fully. But, the main role of our lives in faith is to be channels of grace and good things to others. There is a time for an emphasis on self and self-understanding, especially in the younger years; but, the main emphasis of our adult lives in faith is to be on others and understanding others. There is a time when we have to look after ourselves and sustain ourselves, but the main focus in our lives of faith is to be upon looking out for others and sustaining others.

For the Apostle Paul, his commitment to being a channel of God’s grace seems so complete that it might make us say: “Well, that’s because he was an apostle; I am just some regular human being struggling to make it day by day.” If we take Paul’s words that way, he would be very disappointed. Because, what he is really getting at in this passage is that he, like us, is full of weakness and struggle and subject to disruptions and sickness and worries, but that God’s Gospel continues to shine through him and sustain him because of the surpassing power of God in Jesus Christ. Paul’s point in this letter is that his sicknesses, his weaknesses, his lack of impressiveness as compared to other preachers, is no hindrance to God working through him. In fact, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12 that he has learned that ‘God’s power is made perfect in human weakness.’

I know that we all need to receive some gifts and blessings – some good things in life. I know we all yearn for some fulfillment of our good desires in life. I wish all of that for you as well. But, our identity, our worth, our deepest satisfaction in life will never be in these experiences of receiving or in these experiences of getting good things. Paul is passing onto us the holiest of secrets – the real secret of life if we have hearts and minds to hear it and to understand. I am hearing it like a song in my ear that I like the sound of, but I just can’t seem to learn to sing it.

Maybe one other story might help. I had a big disappointment once in college, And, I was debating this in prayer to God – I guess I was really complaining in my sorrow. And, I heard a voice within that was very strong – that didn’t seem like it came from me at all and it said: YOU ARE NOT HERE TO BE SATISFIED, BUT TO OBEY ME. And, that flat ended the complaining, the praying and the pity party. It was like a jolt of reality. I haven’t had many things happen that clearly to me in my life, but that one has stuck with me.

Maybe the way of faith that Paul is speaking of is not so hard to understand. How often have you experienced in life that you can only really help another person if you can get that other person interested in helping others? If you can help them focus with you on a good work that gets them to look outside self and become part of something with others. That is one way of understanding what God’s Spirit is doing for us.

And, that brings me to the second point I mentioned above. What about our happiness? What about you and me? Sure, this sounds wonderful about being a channel of God’s grace to others. And, yes, being in the role of giving gifts is a very inviting role. But, I know myself. I know that I have some real needs and desires. I know they aren’t going away. But, the best I know at this point in my life, our genuine needs get met on the other side of becoming a channel of grace and perhaps in some different ways than we would have expected and without us even trying to get these things. And, there is probably a good reason for this. My guess is that we do not understand our real needs until we are on the other side of commitment to God. Jesus did say to his disciples: “You father knows you need all these things; but seek you first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you as well.” Again, Jesus said: “He who gives up his life for my sake will find it.” The only way I know to be happy is to give up seeking happiness and seek to serve God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength. When obeying God becomes our first commitment, things start falling into place a little at a time..Like I say, it’s a song I can hear playing in my ear that I can’t sing, but I can’t help listening. It’s a beautiful song. Someday, I am going to learn to sing it; Someday we are all going to learn to sing it in our living fully for the glory of God. Amen.