On Preaching (plus one sermon)
I was given the honor of preaching last week at All Saints, the church that I am working at. At All Saints, we are praying together as a church using a program called “Unbinding Your Heart.” This program is designed to give parishioners and clergy the techniques and vocabulary necessary to more effectively evangelize: to share their faith with others and, through the experience of sharing their faith, grow the church. The staff had their final Unbinding meeting this morning, so the ideas are still fresh in my mind. Anyway, here is my sermon text, along with a few of my thoughts afterwards.
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Shame is an interesting emotion. All of us, I am sure, have experienced shame to some degree, for a multitude of different reasons. People’s negative responses to shame are often, however, similar enough to break them down into three broad categories.
Some people Move Away. They hide, or withdraw. They tell no one.
Some people Move Toward. They try as hard as possible to please people, to make everyone like them.
Some people Move Against. They try to lord over people, try to hide their shame by making others feel shameful.
There are healthy ways to handle feeling shame. To understand why one is feeling the emotion, and to take steps to avoid feeling it again. To acknowledge that a mistake was made, and to learn and grow from the mistake.
In the letter to Timothy, Paul implores Timothy to not hide away; to not be ashamed. Clearly, Paul is worried about the first common response to shame. The inclination to run away and hide your head, and hope that no one ever finds you. The inclination to move to another city, another state. The inclination to simply not tell people that you are Christian.
The inclination to say nothing about Jesus, when the context allows it.
A few years ago, I was driving home from work, I believe. It was late, and I saw a car stalled on the side of the road. I pulled over, and helped this guy around my age jump his car and head off. In my rear view mirror, I saw his car die, so I spun around and jumped it again.
We ended up jumping his car close to ten times between the two miles that he had to go. Each time, we would lean against one car or the other and simply talk. We talked about his work, our families, school, how much cars frustrated us, anything that came up.
He finally got to his house, and came back out. He shook my hand and offered me money for my trouble which I naturally declined. I looked him in the eye. And I didn’t say God Bless You.
Sometimes the readings each week seem like they were chosen with someone specific in mind.
“Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony of our Lord.”
Yes, God, I am listening.
It is so easy to say nothing. It is so simple to hide the fact that we are Christian because it would be inconvenient, or awkward, or inappropriate.
Yet we are given the grace of Christ. Who are we to keep silent about it? We are called to go share the grace of God and the joy that we find in our relationship with God.
I realized right away that I messed up. I prayed, then, to not be ashamed, to have the strength to share what I believe. I imagine that that is similar to what the disciples were asking Jesus in the gospel. Lord, Increase our Faith!
Jesus responds by basically telling them all off. “If you had the faith of a mustard seed you could do remarkable things!”
Jesus responds by telling them, “You have the faith. Do remarkable things!”
This Gospel is a call to action. This Gospel is Jesus saying that a little faith could do a great work. The mustard seed is tiny, and the mulberry tree is huge; but with a little faith, God will do great things. All you have to do is start.
The disciples had all the faith that they needed in order to go and do things that are remarkable. We are called in a similar way to go out and do things that are remarkable.
This passage is telling me that I have the ability to be not ashamed, if I would only try.
Right here in Omaha, I got my chance to make up for my previous mistake. The situation was so similar, I couldn’t help but make the connection and know that I would not be ashamed.
There was someone on our road whose car ran out of gas. I invited him onto our porch and gave him a glass of water and some food (a banana and a cookie for those interested) and went to the gas station to fill up the the little can he had.
He filled up the car, and shook my hand and said thanks. No problem, I said God bless you. He hugged me and went on his way.
YES! Thank you God, you gave me another chance, and I didn’t mess up this time. Didn’t I do good? High five! Come on, God, you can tell me, I did good, right?
The second part of the gospel speaks to that. Clearly.
“So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “we have done only what we ought to have done!””
We should not expect God to shower us with praise for doing what we are supposed to be doing. When we feed the poor, help the needy, do we expect a choir of angels to sing our praise?
Did I feel intense pride over doing what is expected of me? Yes. Should I have?
Oh, someone needed help, and I helped them. That is not in doubt. That should not be cause for celebration, though; that should be a Tuesday.
Part of why this Gospel reading is challenging for me is because there seem to be two unrelated passages. There is the passage about increasing faith, and Luke makes a reference to the mustard seed that plays a prominent role in other Gospel readings.
Then, there is the “second” part of the reading where Jesus is telling a parable about the relationship between a slave and his master.
The relationship between a master and his slave is so hard for us to wrap our heads around, to comprehend on an instinctual level because the idea of slavery is so anathema to us. To the disciples, this would have been as similar as talking about a waiter who brings you water at a restaurant.
Do any of us invite the waiter or waitress to eat before us when we go out to Olive Garden?
Do we profess our gratitude with songs of thanksgiving when they bring us the dinner that we ordered?
If we say anything at all, a simple thank you is sufficient. Personally, I haven’t showered any of my servers with praise for doing what is expected of them. I am always polite, but it is expected of them.
It is expected.
God expects us to serve others. It makes him happy when we do so, of course, but it is expected.
Jesus often answers his disciples in parables. It is not common, however, that he completely ignores his disciples. The disciples ask for more faith, and Jesus says that they only need a little faith to do marvelous works: faith the size of a mustard seed.
Jesus tells his disciples that they should not expect undo praise for doing what is expected of them; that the slave that serves his master does not get rewarded for doing what is his duty.
It seems likely that the parables are related then, that Jesus is still talking about how to increase our faith when he is speaking about the slave and the master.
The relationship of a slave and master is not a perfect analogue to the relationship that we have with God, but it serves as an illustration to how we relate to God. We have a relationship with God, and certain things are expected of us. Simply by being in church, we are attempting to increase that fullness of that relationship.
How do we increase our faith? We do it by doing what is expected of us. We increase our faith by serving God and each other. We increase our faith by being not ashamed.
Many of you have spent the last month in the “Unbinding Your Heart” program, praying together as a church. This is a fantastic way to be in relationship with each other and relationship with God. The unbinding program calls us, as God does, to be unashamed of who we are as Christians.
If we pray to God, our prayers will be answered in one way or another. If we are praying together as a church about ways to be unashamed of God, of ways to serve God, how then might those prayers be answered? What might we be called to do?
Jesus calls all of us to serve one another.
God, please help us to be unashamed of you. God, please help us to have faith.
I have been fortunate enough to have been given the opportunity to preach at several different churches at this point, and all of them have been different. I love feeling out the character of a church as I am preaching; finding what they are connecting with, and letting God speak through me, and changing how I preach for each service. I don’t think that I am skilled at this by any means, but I definitely felt the Holy Spirit when I was preaching this sermon.
I have been given very constructive feedback on how to improve my preaching (I keep lowering my voice as I make a point) and how to improve my writing (MANY different suggestions) and improving my preaching is one of my goals for this year.
God bless you!