The following is my first sermon. I preached it at my home church, Bethel Presbyterian Church, East Columbia, TX, on July 13, 2008. It is by far the most memorable and meaningful Sunday of my life.
Good morning, Bethel. Before I begin, I’d like to tell you a little about my journey to this moment. During my last year at Schreiner I passed up multiple preaching opportunities. One for the church I interned at and another for my Campus Minister’s weekly chapel service. My reasons for not being able to preach were mostly petty half-truths such as, “Oh, I really don’t have the time to put in the preparation it deserves.” The truth is I had high hopes for this first sermon (And a few of you have told me you do as well… No pressure there!). So when I met with Jim back in May to discuss my upcoming year of service in India, I said, “You know, I’m really not doing a whole lot this summer, so if you have anything you could use help with let me know.” Well, he let me know without missing a beat. “Would you like to preach,” he said connivingly. And before I could stop my tongue, I heard myself say, “Sure!”
It wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I offered, but the truth is, the highest hope that I have always had for this first sermon was that it would be here at Bethel. No group of people has had more of an influence on the choices I’ve made that have brought me here in front of you.
I would say it began in Sunday School with teachers like Barbara, Cheri, Donna, Marj, and Lynn who let me run my mouth (and they can all attest to that), and continued on from the opportunities to read scripture during worship… to the experience of being the Youth Representative to the Session… to the financial support and care packages throughout college… and now to the absolutely overwhelming support for going into the ministry beginning with volunteering in India. I sincerely thank you not only for allowing me to preach today, but also for everything you’ve all done to bring me to this point in my life. There is no one else I would rather share this moment with.
So, a few weeks ago I found myself back in Jim’s office to discuss what crazy ideas I might have for a sermon. I shared a little with him and he said the advice he got after his first sermon was, “That was great, Jim, but just tell us what you believe.” So, my first thought at hearing this second-hand advice: Well that’s simple. Me being a great Presbyterian and all, I’ll just recite the Apostle’s Creed 16 times. And while that would get me to my goal of 12 minutes, I’m afraid a few of you may see it as a copout or “unoriginal.”
But in all seriousness, that’s what I hope to do today. To simply tell you what I believe instead of attempting to wow you with every bit of knowledge I acquired over the last 21 years.
In that same meeting, Jim loaned me a book, What’s Right with the Church, written by William H. Willimon in 1985 and published by Harper & Row. If there is one thing I learned in college, it is to cite your sources! In that book, I found this story, recorded by a pastor, a conversation between himself and someone you could say is a little critical of the Church:
“‘You know, Preacher Will, that Church of yours and Mr. Jesus is like an Easter chicken my little Karen got one time. Man it was a pretty thing. Dyed a deep purple. Bought it at the grocery store.’
I interrupted that white was liturgical color for Easter but he ignored me. ‘And it served a real useful purpose. Karen loved it. It made her happy. And that made me and her Mamma happy. Okay?’
I said, ‘Okay.’
‘But pretty soon that baby chicken started feathering out. You know, sprouting little pin feathers. Wings and tail and all that. And you know what? Them new feathers weren’t purple. No sirree bob, that darn chicken wasn’t really purple at all. That chicken was a Rhode Island Red. And when all them little red feathers started growing out from under that purple it was one hell of a sight. All of a sudden Karen couldn’t stand that chicken anymore.’
‘I think I see what you’re driving at…’
‘No, hell no, Preacher Will. You don’t understand any such thing for I haven’t got to my point yet.’
‘Okay, I’m sorry, Rave on.’
‘Well, we took that half-purple and half-red thing out to her Grandma’s house and threw it in the chicken yard with all the other chickens. It was still different , you understand. And the other chickens knew it was different. And they resisted it like hell. Pecked it, chased it all over the yard. Wouldn’t have anything to do with it. Wouldn’t even let it get on the roost with them. And that little chicken knew it was different too. It didn’t bother any of the others. Wouldn’t fight back or anything. Just stayed by itself. Really suffered too. But little by little, day by day, that chicken came around. Pretty soon, even before all the purple grew off it, while it was still a little bit different, that darn thing was behaving just about like the rest of them chickens. Man, it would fight back, peck the hell out of the ones littler than it was, knock them down to catch a bug if it got to it in time. Yes sirree bob, the chicken world turned that Easter chicken around. And now you can’t tell one chicken from another. They’re all just alike. The Easter chicken is just one more chicken. There ain’t a darn thing different about it.’
I knew he wanted to argue and I didn’t want to disappoint him.
‘Well… the Easter chicken is still useful. It lays eggs, doesn’t it?’
It was what he wanted me to say. ‘Yea, Preacher Will. It lays eggs. But they all lay eggs. Who needs an Easter Chicken for that? And the Rotary Club serves coffee. And the 4-H Club says prayers. The Red Cross takes up offerings for hurricane victims. Mental Health does counseling, and the Boy Scouts have Youth Programs.’”
Now before the Session calls a special meeting and takes away any potential India funding, I will say that I wouldn’t classify Bethel as an Easter chicken. But isn’t there a large bit of truth to this man’s point? If other non-profit organizations are accomplishing the same goals as churches, and sometimes more effectively, is the church living up to its call?
I want to read you Romans 12:2 again, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” This verse speaks to us about the concept of using discernment to recognize a call from God. The concept of call has become a large aspect of my relationship with God over the last few years. From the decision to go into the ministry to applying to the Young Adult Volunteer program…
One thing I’ve learned about call is that it is ever changing. It isn’t a onetime packet God sends you, including color coordinated tabs and timelines, that maps out your life as your Lord would have it. Instead, discernment is an ongoing process that not only includes God, but also one another in an effort to constantly listen for what the Lord would ask of us. One fatal mistake is naively believe that we’ve got it right. That we’re doing all we could. The truth is, we’re human, and the chance that we have no room for improvement is pretty slim. We must never be content with our actions or our world. Instead, we must keep this conversation with God open.
If each of God’s children has a call, does the Church itself not also have a call? And if so what is it? Another verse, Micah 6:8, has a lot of meaning for me. Not only was it my Campus Ministry’s motto in college, but it was also chosen to guide the General Assembly of the PC(USA) last month in San Jose, CA. It reads, “But what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” It seems all to obvious that the Church has a responsibility to not become content with the status quo, but to remain constantly vigilant as to what is going on in the world. A world that the Church is surely a part of.
And certainly the Church’s role should not be that of an observer. Instead the role as an active advocate for all of God’s people seems more appropriate. While justice can be about court room cases, more importantly it is about achieving equality among all of God’s children from East Columbia, Texas to Kottayam, India. While kindness can be about manners and thoughtful cards, it is maybe more importantly about showing mercy and forgiveness to those we don’t feel deserve it. And while Bethel may be praised for its stained glassed windows and beautiful buildings that seem to be filled with a wedding each Saturday, it is the humility of the members that God would praise.
The task God has put before us is not simple, instead it is a three-fold call that requires balance that is no small feat to achieve. Finding that balance will require the constant renewal of each of our minds through prayer and conversation with one another.
So Bethel, as we leave today, I ask you one thing…
How will we not fall into the trap of being just one more chicken, but continue to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God?
The following is an excerpt from an email written to my campus minister the evening that I preached. I feel it best encapsulates my immediate thoughts after my first experience of preaching.
It went amazingly!! I felt absolutely calm and at peace behind the pulpit. Neither my hands nor voice shook, my heart didn't beat to fast, my legs didn't feel weak. I just felt calm and confident. It felt right. That's the only thing I know to say right now. And they clapped (and they aren't clappers at all!). It was overwhelming. I loved it. And I'm totally drained.