I preached in my church’s worship service this past Sunday. I’ve preached before, both at this church and others, so I was not all that nervous at the thought of standing up before the congregation I belong to and expressing myself and my thoughts on God through a sermon. Years ago, doing such a thing would have brought on involuntary trembling. These days, it’s a cake walk.
However, I write this without taking into account the subject matter of my sermon. Usually, this variable effects no change in my composure. On this Sunday, however, I felt quite uneasy as I stepped to the podium and gently laid my manuscript down. You see, I normally have no problem with a sermon once I have written it, having used the best words that come to communicate the message I believe is from God, the reception of which being, of course, an intimate and rather mundane hand-off, and not the revelation-on-Patmos kind of inspiration many people associate with receiving a “message from God.” I like to imagine God is pleased to work in the former way much more often, especially in these days filled with flamboyant televangelists and strutting mega church preachers who seem to have an endless connection to ecstatic inspiration from the Almighty (strange that they all sound the same). But I digress…
This Sunday, I chose two passages to expound on: Acts 4:32-35 and James 1:21-27. In short, I spoke on the amazing intimacy that existed between the first Christian church, and how most church-goers in our society have regressed to living as mere “hearers” of God’s word, rather than “doers.” I intimated that these two selections from the New Testament inform one another. The problem for me was that the sermon I ended up with after three hours of writing seem to read with a tone of meanness. Having written it on Thursday, I fretted through the next two days, afraid that the words I originally felt to be challenging and relevant to my particular church community, were, at worst, vicious, and at best, somewhat inconsiderate. It didn’t matter that there was a tenderness in my tone when I practiced reading it. What was being said was quite harsh in places. Some of the lines included:
“Everything outside the church that does not contain its official and pristine stamp of approval is considered secular – and therefore evil – by comparison. It is dangerous. … In an “us vs. them” church, there is no “ye though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” because a truly ”good” shepherd would deem that journey unnecessary if it included such a detour into the world.”
“We will never be the church that God desires, that honors are risen Savior, if we do not actively care about its members – all its members - and the community that exists between us all. ”
“We will never be a transformed church until we are willing to worship with our hands as well as our mouths, with our talents as well as our pocketbooks. True need demands both.”
Talking with some of the church members afterwards, the usual niceties (which, don’t get me wrong, I believe were genuine) were exchanged, but one woman said, “It was a wonderful message. Ouch!” She was uplifted and inspired by the sermon, but her comment still made me gulp. The last thing I wanted to do, as this will probably be my last sermon at this church (Leigh and I leave for Germany in less than two months), was to alienate my hearers, or cause them to think that I do not treasure my experiences within this congregation.
But, I suppose, this is what is involved in speaking truth to power. There is no easy delivery, nor is there perfect release on the other side. You only trust in the words you feel are right, stand tall and speak well, and hope that they will not go out in vain, but find fertile soil in the hearts and minds of your listeners. It is very similar to missions fund raising, when you know you need to simply come right out and tell people how very much in need of their financial support you are, but have trouble doing so without being apologetic. Strange that I would be experiencing such similar circumstances so close together.
So may you know courage, and may you recognize truth when it seizes you. May you stand tall and speak the truth well. And may you see transformation take place. May you reap a harvest like none other – the glorious harvest that comes when power is humbled and is remarkably moved to show its power in full. May the truth set you and me – indeed, everyone – free.