Friday, September 2, 2016

If I Had Just One Sermon to Preach

photo by Bev Norton / flickr
I have been trying to decide what would be most appropriate for this last  Sunday. I remember a friend of mine saying if you had just one sermon to preach--what would you say? Good question: if you only had one sermon to preach--what would you say?

Certainly that sermon should deal with the essence of the gospel. Surely it would be a good news in a world of so little good news. 

After thinking about all that is going on in the world—which is a lot—and all the things you bring into this room—what should I say? And what is it that we all need to hear?

I have chosen for our text that wonderful scene in Jesus' life. Our Lord pushed aside the carpenter shavings and turned toward adulthood. He found his cousin John and said, "Will you baptize me?" Standing there in the Jordan River, the wind blew. A bird sang off in the distance. And a voice spoke. It was a holy moment. For itwas God that spoke. And as Jesus came up out of the water that voice said: "This is my beloved." And this became the word that would carry him through thick and thin for the rest of his life. And there, in the Jordan River I have found my sermon. This is my beloved.

Tony Morrison has a wonderful novel called Beloved. It's the story of a woman trapped in slavery--a black woman in the 1800's in Ohio. The only thing she had in all her life--the only
photo by elycefeliz / flickr
thing she had--was her two-year old child who died. Who can imagine such grief? In her devastation, she went to see the man that carved tombstones. Knowing she had little or no money he said to her: "I've got a little sliver of granite left over. It is just the size for a baby's tombstone. If you can give me seven letters in the next few minutes I have a little time and I'll carve the tombstone and give to you for free." She couldn't read. She did not know how long letters were. She wanted to put "Dearly Beloved " on the tombstone because that's what the preacher had said over and over at the funeral for her baby. But the man said that was too many letters. And so she said, "Would the word, beloved be too long?" He counted on his fingers: "B-E-L-O-V-E-D." And he carved those seven letters of a very great love and an enormous, enormous loss.

And when we come to the Scriptures, two Gospels have carved this word into the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. And across waters and time and cultures and two thousand years, the word still remains: B-E-L-O-V-E-D.

It isn't the only time we bump into this word. Jesus would face the dark clouds and opposition and friends and family who did not understand and finally the Cross. All four gospels tell the story that of that time when Jesus and his three friends went up into the mountains to the place which has become known as The Mount of Transfiguration. There on top of the mountain, so far from the difficulties he would face, he would find a preparation to go on. Peter, James and John witnessed this surreal scene. They heard a voice that came to Jesus and said, "You are my beloved." And so he led them down, down the mountain with its twisting, winding trails all the way down where he would face the hard things that would lead him to the Cross. The Gospels tell us he did it with his head held high moving through his darkest hours with great dignity and grace because he had heard a word.

So this becomes the last word I think I would say if this was my last sermon. For if we listen closely the One that heard that word gave it out again and again wherever he went. And if we, too, can claim this word for ourselves, we can go out into all the hard things that we must do and we shall find that anchoring word, and we shall make it.

But someone here says, "But what about those other words?" Other words? "You are no good." "You are lazy." "You'll never amount to anything." "You're a nobody." "Worthless--absolutely worthless!" “Illegal.” “Trashy.” “Nobody.” “Deadbeat.” “Sissy.” "Stupid." We have heard these words all our lives from kindergarten and home and school and church and, it seems, everywhere. "Just who do you think you are?" And many of us have fought these old labels all our lives and we are exhausted from the fighting. And so we have tried a multitude of prescriptions to cancel out the ugly, ugly words: work, success, jobs, money, things sex, drugs, alcohol—addictions of all kinds. And none of these have not worked at all. 

Do you see why I have chosen this old story? For if you and me can somehow capture the essence of this word God gave his son, it may just carry us through. To close the gap between what God says and the realities of your life and mine. For this is our task and this is the great missionary word of the church: to tell each other and the whole wide world what God himself has called all of his children to discover this healing word, beloved.

But we can't do it alone. We can't operate on ourselves. And I think this is why we need church, if it's healthy. We shake the amnesia of many things in order to hear this special, special word. We hear music. We ponder sermons. We sing hymns. We wade through the baptismal waters. We take the Bread and the Cup. We listen to the old words of Scripture. But the great hope is that, somehow, we will be addressed and our names will be called. And if we ever, ever hear that word, beloved, we keep coming back because we know it's real and right and true.

photo by chick_e_poo / flickr
But it doesn't stop there. For Jesus did a wonderful thing. He took that benediction, that which had been given, and broke it and gave it away like the loaves and fishes. And they just kept coming. Not just the right people. But everybody. Like those hungry, hungry five thousand he fed that day. They kept coming--hungry for affirmation. Why did they all come—because they knew he thought they were beloved. We could go on and on, Lepers. The centurion’s son—an outsider, that stormy time when the disciples thought they would sink. Wild demoniacs, paralytics, tax collectors, Zaccheus. They all heard that wonderful word addressed just to them as if they were the only one: Beloved. You are beloved. 

The beat goes on. It is not just confine to stories in the Bible. Maybe you have heard the name Raymond Carver. He was one of the great writers of the twentieth century. He died a couple of years ago. He had an awful time with alcoholism. Lost his wife. Lost his family. Lost about everything he had. But in the last ten years of his life he put the bottle away with the help of some groups and doctors and AA. He met a woman named Tess Gallagher whom he dedicates his last book to. I love that dedication:
Tess. Tess. Tess. Tess. 

She was his light. He found some joy and meaning in those last ten years. Then he discovered he had lung cancer. He went through all the chemotherapy. There were ten months of courageous fighting before he lost the battle. The last book of poetry he ever wrote was called A New Path to the Waterfall. The last poem in the book is his benediction for his life.

And did you get
what you wanted
from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved.
To feel myself beloved of the earth.

It is the great, great dream of us all. To hear that voice that tells us, deep down, we matter and we count.

Leonard Sweet, a Methodist preacher tells of a little boy named Michael who was four years old. His mother told him one day that she was going to have a baby. Michael was so excited. He wanted a baby in their family. As his mother's stomach grew larger and larger, Michael would go up as she was standing there at the sink and put his nose on her stomach and put his arms around what he said was the baby. And he would sing:

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,
You make me happy when skies are gray.
You'll never know, dear, how much I love you,
Please don't take my sunshine away.

Over and over Michael would sing that song. Sometimes the baby would kick and he would
photo by Scott & Elaine van der Chijs / flickr
giggle. He was so happy about the baby. The time came for the mother to go to the hospital and she had the baby. But there were a lot of complications. They did not know if the baby was going to live. She told Michael as best she could that the baby was very sick. Michael was so distressed and he wanted to see the baby. Well, the baby was in the neonatal unit and they didn't want him to see the baby with all the tubes and things she was hooked up to. But Michael insisted. He would not take no for an answer. All he talked about was his baby sister. Finally, the mother got permission from the doctors and they brought Michael to the hospital. He went upstairs and they took him by the hand and led him into the room. And he saw the baby. He didn't see the wires and feeding tubes and the monitors. He just saw his baby sister. He said, "Mama, I want to touch her." So they lifted Michael up and he put his nose against her nose and he said, "She's beautiful!" And he started singing:

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,
You make me happy when skies are gray.
You'll never know, dear, how much I love you,
Please don't take my sunshine away.

The next day at kindergarten, someone from the hospital came to the school and said they wanted Michael to come back to the hospital. Was something wrong with the baby? No, the baby was a little better. But when the doctor read all the charts and reports from the night before, he noticed that at a certain time during the day, somehow the baby began to calm down and to rest peacefully. The Doctor discovered that a change came about the time that Michael had been there and when he had sung. They said the doctor wants Michael to come back and to sing to the baby. And so every day at the same time, they would take Michael from the school to the hospital, up the elevator, to the neonatal unit and he would put his nose on the baby's nose and he would sing: "You Are My Sunshine."

Leonard Sweet, in telling the story, says his favorite picture in his office is a picture of nine-year-old Michael and his five-year- old sister.

Once upon a time, God came down the stairs of heaven with a child in his arms. And you know, I think he was singing. But I don't think he was singing just to the baby. I think he was singing to the whole wide world. And I think I know what he was singing. Will you sing it with me?

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,
You make me happy when skies are gray,
You'll never know, dear, how much I love you,
Please don't take my sunshine away.

And that's what I would say if this was the last sermon I was ever to preach. You are beloved. Beloved of God. And if we ever, ever get our arms around that idea we can take it all: death, life, things present, things to come, powers, no matter how high the waves or dark the night—nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(This is the last sermon that I preached at the First Baptist Church, Pendleton (SC) as I finished an eighth-month interim. August 28, 2016. Fine, fine church.)

photo by Kyle / flickr

--Roger Lovette /


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