Friday, October 11, 2019

The longest sermon I ever preached

(Maner Tyson, a Southern Baptist minister, asked me to preach at, I think, his 10th year of service and on 'Pastor Appreciation' Sunday. He worked with the poor and lost of Waterbury. A street ministry in many ways. I love him greatly. And since it was a Southern Baptist Congregation, I wrote a sermon longer than usual. I wanted to share it with you.)


          Remember the story of Elijah when he fled from Jezebel and the priests of Baal and found himself on Mount Horeb. This story is told in First Kings 19, beginning with verse 11. I’m reading from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

          God said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”
       Now there was a great wind, so strong it was spitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind;
       And after the wind, an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake;
       And after the earthquake, a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire;
       And after the fire a sound of sheer silence.
       When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “what are you doing here, Elijah?”

          I bring you greetings from the people of God who worship and minister across the street at St. John’s. And I bring their best wishes to Rev. Tyson on this day to honor his prophetic and pastoral ministry in your midst.
          I share in many ways your appreciation for Maner’s work and dedication and commitment as your Pastor. In addition, as most of you know, Maner and Rhonie work with St. John’s as our Youth Ministers.
          Now, Episcopalians and Baptists have some different ways of looking at the Christian Faith and some different ways of worshipping God. There’s a story about a Baptist who went to an Episcopal Church. He sat in the very first row—which was empty because Episcopalians usually don’t sit in the first row except on Easter and Christmas. He followed along in the Book of Common Prayer and listened to the scripture readings. And he sang the hymns a lot louder than most of the folks around him. But the trouble started when the priest got up to give the sermon.
          After a couple of sentences, the Baptist said, “Amen, brother! Preach it!”
          Well, the Episcopal priest was so startled, he stopped preaching. But he gathered himself and started again. Another few sentences and the Baptist said, “Praise the Lord, thank you Jesus….”
          Some of the members of the congregation were getting a little nervous at that point, but the preacher continued and the Baptist man stood up and said, “I hear you, brother! Amen!”
          At that point one of the ushers came down to the first pew and whispered to the Baptist: “Sir, I’m afraid I have to ask you to keep quiet during the sermon.”
          “I can’t be quiet,” the Baptist replied, “I’ve got the Spirit!”
          And the usher said, “Well, you didn’t get it HERE….”

          I’m pleased to say, you CAN “get the Spirit” across the street at St. John’s. And I’m proud that we’re the only Episcopal Church I know of with Baptists as youth directors….
          And I’m delighted to be with you today.
          I was told “prophet leadership” should be the theme of what I have to share with you. I want to talk about three prophets this morning: Elijah at the cave, Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones and Jesus on the Cross.
          But before that, I want to define what a “prophet” is. My definition is this: A PROPHET IS ONE WHO SPEAKS THE WORD OF GOD IN UNCOMFORTABLE, EVEN DANGEROUS SITUATIONS.
          Somewhere along the line, people started thinking of “prophecy” as having something to do with being able to “see the future”.  You might have heard of Edgar Casey and Jeanne Dixon. Edgar Casey had waking “dreams” of what was going to happen and Jeanne Dixon made predictions of the future. Neither of them were “prophets” in the Biblical sense. They were “sooth-sayers” and fortune tellers, not “prophets”.
          I contend that a true prophet—a “prophet” as the Bible describes them—does three things: first, “listens for God”; second, “speaks for God”; third and most importantly, “loves for God”.
          Let’s go back to Elijah in his cave, listening for God. It is good to remember how he got there. Elijah, in Chapter 18 of 1st Kings, is the last living prophet of Israel and he single-handedly defeats 70 priests of Baal when God miraculously set fire to Elijah’s offering though it had been soaked by water. Then the people of Israel, convinced of God’s power, killed the prophets of Baal and Elijah ran for his life, fleeing from the wrath of Queen Jezebel. Fearing for his life, he sits under a bloom tree and asks God to take his life. But God sends him instead to Horeb.
          The journey takes Elijah 40 days without food and water (that sounds familiar doesn’t it?) before he comes to the cave and listens for God. A prophet must listen very carefully for God. To “speak” for God, a prophet must “hear” God clearly and discern God’s voice.
          God speaks to Elijah on Horeb—but not in the wind and not in the earthquake and not in the fire. Most translations of the Bible say that God spoke in “a still, small voice”—but I prefer the translation I read which compares God’s speaking to “a sound of sheer silence”.
          One of the most important ways we “listen for God” is in prayer. But most of the time we think of “prayer” as talking to God rather than listening for God. Prayer is a conversation, and like any conversation, we have to “listen” as much as we “talk”.
          A prophetic leader must be a person of deep, profound prayer. And, most often, that prayer must often be “without words”, simply being present to God and listening for God’s voice. Prayer is the beginning of Prophecy. Prayer is the food and drink of Christian leadership. And you must be very quiet, very attentive, deeply listening to hear “a still small voice”, to recognize the “sound of sheer silence….”

          Now let’s turn to another prophet—Ezekiel. This is found in the 37th chapter of Ezekiel.
                             EZEKIEL 37.1-10
          The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley: it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley and they were very dry.
       He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
       I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”
       Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you and cause flesh to come upon you and cover you with skin and put breath in you and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
       So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked and there were sinews on them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.
       Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal and say to the breath; Thus says the Lord God, come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”
       I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

          Ezekiel spoke for God and the words he spoke were words of renewal, words of rejuvenation, words of healing, words of resurrection, words of Life….
          Prophetic Leadership is leadership that brings healing and hope and life to bear on a world deeply wounded, despairing, dying.
          Remember the prophetic message of Jesus to those disciples of John the Baptist who came to ask him if “he were the One” sent from God. This begins in Luke 7:22: Jesus says: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard; the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them….”
          Words of healing and hope and life to a world wounded, despairing, dying….If dry bones can put on flesh and breathe again and live, can’t we bring healing and hope and life as well? And it is vital to notice that the Words of the Prophet are not “just talkin’”—the Word of God is “action” as well. Lots of people talk a good line about God, but true Prophetic Leadership “takes action” in this world.
          Remember the story of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25, when the Son of Man divides the sheep from the goats. He condemns the unrighteous, not because they didn’t “talk the talk”, but because they didn’t “walk the walk”. He doesn’t say, “you didn’t praise my name enough, you didn’t pray in church enough, you didn’t testify to my power enough”…oh, no, those are just words. The Son of Man condemns the “unrighteous” because they didn’t “DO” enough, they didn’t take the actions in this world of healing and hope and life.
          …for when I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me…”
       And who does the Word of God speak to most vividly, most forcefully, most powerfully? To “the least of these”. It is what we DO for “the least of these” that we truly DO for Christ. Talk is cheap. Actions speak louder than words.
          True Prophetic Leaders “speak for God” AND “act for God”—and their words and actions are always for “the least of these”: the poor, the oppressed, the broken-hearted, those imprisoned by bars or by addiction, those on the margins of society, those longing for equality, for justice, for inclusion, for freedom. True Prophetic Leaders—like Gandhi, like Mother Teresa and Mother Jones, like Martin Luther King—work for justice and have a dream.
          Mother Teresa’s dream was to eliminate poverty and sickness from the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, India. Someone once asked her, surrounded by thousands of suffering people: “Mother Teresa, how do you ever expect to help all these people?”
          Mother Teresa smiled: “one at a time,” she said.
          A prophetic leader “listens for God” and “speaks and acts for God”. But most importantly, a prophetic leader “loves for God”. This brings us to Jesus on the Cross. In the midst of his suffering and dying, his thoughts were still thoughts of love.
          “Father, forgive them,” he prayed from the cross, “for they know not what they do….”
          Imagine that—imagine, if you can, loving and praying for the ones who  beat you and spit on you, the ones who made you carry your own cross, the ones who drove the nails into your hands and feet and lifted you up to die. That is radical and prophetic love. That is the love God calls us to share and to be. To love our enemies and bless those who persecute us.
          This is the hardest and most important role of a Prophetic Leader—“to Love for God….”
          Here’s what I think Jesus was saying from the Cross—I think he was saying: “Father, God, even though they are killing me, they are your children and you love them. And I love them too.”
          Loving for God, as a prophetic leader, tells us two things: it tells us “WHO WE ARE” and “WHOSE WE ARE.”  No matter what the world says, God’s love tells us that we are his beloved children and that we belong to him.
          Did you notice that when I began this sermon, I crossed myself like this?....I did that on purpose, knowing that it is one of the things that Episcopalians do that Baptists don’t do. And I wanted a chance to explain why we do it.
          Whenever I cross myself like this…I say to myself, silently, “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.” Doing this—crossing myself—is a way I have of reminding myself of my baptism. When we baptize a child or an adult in the Episcopal Church, we say: “I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And a little later in the service we anoint the newly baptized with oil on their foreheads in the sign of the cross and say: “You are sealed in the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever….”
          MARKED AS CHRIST’S OWN FOREVER….That’s a pretty amazing and wonderful and joyful thing to be. “Marked as Christ’s own forever” is who I am and whose I am. And every time I cross myself, I am reminding myself of those two things: that I am a child of God and that I belong to Christ forever. So it’s not an empty gesture to me….It speaks to me of God’s radical and prophetic love.
I heard a sermon two weeks ago in Columbus, Ohio, at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, that points to this kind of radical and prophetic love. The preacher was a man who has been oppressed and hated by many just because of who he is—but he said to us all—“love them anyway….No matter what they do to you, love them anyway. It is by loving that you know who you are, really….”

          I want to end with a story that, it seems to me, speaks to the role of a Prophetic Leader in today’s church.
          It seems a man from the city was out driving in the country. He passed a free range chicken farm and almost wrecked his car because right in the middle of a huge flock of chickens he saw a full grown bald eagle, digging and scratching in the dirt. The man stopped and turned around just to make sure his eyes had not deceived him. He stopped his car beside the fence and sure enough, there was a full grown eagle eating grain with the chickens.
          The man walked up to the farm house and knocked on the door. He introduced himself to the farmer and asked about the eagle.
          “Yessir,” the farmer said, “I found the little fellow when he was not much passed newborn. I don’t know how he got here, but I put him in with my chickens and he’s seemed to have adjusted to life.”
          “But don’t you think the eagle is unhappy?” the city man asked.
          The farmer thought for a minute and then said, “he don’t seem to mind much….”
          The city man drove about 20 miles in silence, thinking about the eagle among the chickens. Then a thought came to him—he should go and liberate the eagle and show him the sky. So he turned around and went back to ask the farmer if he could try to teach the eagle to fly.
          The farmer didn’t seem to mind. “Don’t think you’ll have much luck though,” he told the city man.
          The city man went into the field and waded through dozens of chickens until he was near the eagle. He picked the huge bird up and held him over his head.
          “You are an eagle,” the man said, “you must fly!” And he threw the eagle up in the air as far as he could.
          Plop, that eagle fell to the ground on his side and tried to get away. But the man was undeterred. He picked the eagle up and carried him across the field away from the chickens. The eagle clawed and bit to get away, but the man ignored the pain. Again he said, “You are an eagle, you must fly!” and through the great bird up in the air.
          Plop. Again the eagle fell to the ground, jumped up and waddled off back to the chickens.
          So the man caught the eagle again and put him in the backseat of his car and drove him up to the summit of a nearby mountain. He held the eagle over the edge of a cliff and the bird became so frightened that he climbed up on the man’s shoulder, digging his great talons into the man’s shoulder.
          “You are eagle,” the man shouted to the sky, grimacing with pain, “you must fly!”  He jumped around, trying to knock the eagle off his shoulder.
          Then something wondrous happened. The eagle, afraid of losing his balance, raised his wings and brought them down….Whoosh! went the eagle’s wings through the air and the great bird, for the first time, felt the power he possessed. After a moment he tried it again…Whoosh!...and lifted a few inches off the man’s shoulder.
          With a pause of amazement, the bird seemed to realize something his life on the ground had made him forget. He lifted his head and stared at the sky and then with a grace and beauty born of God, his wings came down again and again and again and again…and he was soaring into the endless sky, once more remembering “who he was” and “who he belonged to”.
          The man watched until the eagle was but a dot in the blue above him. Then, weeping with joy and the pain of the wounds he had received, he walked back to his car and drove home.
          And the Eagle Soared.
          Here’s what I believe with all my heart. Your pastor, Maner Tyson, is a prophetic leader to you. He is a man of bone-deep prayer who listens for God’s word and will for Waterbury Baptist Ministry. He is a man of courage and commitment who speaks for God and acts for God in this suffering, sorrowing world. And he is a man who loves for God, loves deeply, with all his heart and soul.
          And one person at a time, he holds up the Eagles all around him in this congregation and in this city and reminds them—no matter what the world says—he reminds you “who you are” and “whose you are” and he invites you to soar as you were meant to soar.
          It is not without a cost to him—a cost to his energy, his stamina, his faith, his ministry, his very soul. AND, it is “what he is among you to DO…it is who he is among you to BE.”
          It is right and good that you show him all your appreciation today. Honor him and love him and nurture him—this man of prayer and action and love…this prophetic leader in your midst…this good and kind and gentle soul who is God’s special gift to you, and to me, and to this whole city.
          I love you, my friend. I love you.

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About Me

some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.