A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Good Preaching

Preaching intrigues me. I'm amazed how the Holy Spirit can use a preacher's personality, intellect, and unique gifts to deliver a message from God week after week.

My friend, Pastor Terry Heck, who serves at Bellbrook UMC, one of our fifteen Common Cup churches, has the uncanny ability to deliver memorable sermons. One of the reasons why I think she is such a good preacher is that she is willing to take some risks in allowing the sermon to go the direction that the scriptural text is begging her to go.

Just today, Terry shared a brief summary of the sermon she preached last Sunday at her church. She didn't disappoint! I asked her to send me a copy of her sermon to post on my web blog. (See below.) Notice how she takes the story of Jonah and creatively invites us to repent by going out on a limb and sharing her own sins. Now, that's vulnerable. That's good preaching.

January 25, 2009
When the Word of the Lord Comes Jonah 3:1-5, 10
... and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. Jonah 3:5

In the name of God who is Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.

God goes to Jonah, tells him to preach repentance to the people of Ninevah and Jonah does not want to do it. Jonah runs away from God because he knows that if the people listen to him preach and then repent that God will forgive them. Jonah does not want these wicked people to be forgiven so he avoids offering them the opportunity. While using this story of Jonah to realize that there is a little bit of Jonah in each of us – we really don’t like it when people who have done terrible things are forgiven – the story is also about God’s reconciliation with the people. God wants to forgive us. This is one of the greatest stories of grace in scripture.

When God confronts Jonah the second time, Jonah is obedient. He goes into Ninevah and preaches a sermon of repentance. The people are so stricken with the reality of their sin that they tear their clothes, put on sackcloth, and begin to beg God to forgive them. When the word of the Lord comes to them, they repent. And God forgives them. As one scholar writes, this is a story about God’s desire to be reconciled with the worst of people! (GBOD website)

All of my life, I’ve heard God’s word calling me to repent. I imagine that many of you have, too. I am so struck by the immediate response of the people in this story and yet I know that we have had the same word from God and I have not reacted so immediately or so sorrowfully. These people are actually in grief over their sin.

The initial reaction for us might be that we aren’t as bad as these people. You know, they were pretty evil – so much so that they were in danger of being destroyed by God’s wrath – as the story goes. So, there’s no way that I am that bad! Is that what we think, when the word of the Lord comes to us? Do we think that we are not that bad so there’s no real need to weep and plead for forgiveness?

As I pondered this text, I realized that I have heard the word of the Lord all my life, I’ve preached the word of the Lord, yet I know that I, too, need to repent. So, as I speak with you today, I offer these words as words of repentance. I told my husband what I was doing in my sermon and he offered to make a list of my sins for me to share with you. I imagine when I finish, some of you may be able to think of some other sins of mine, as well. But perhaps instead of focusing on my sin, you might think about your own life and how you respond when the word of the Lord comes to you.

Lord, I repent of my sin. For those times when I put my own selfish desires before consideration for others, I am sorry. For the times when I may have spoken a word of harshness that was hurtful instead of helpful, for times when gossip was just too good to keep to myself, for times when I relished in a bad story about another, I am sorry.

Lord, for those times when I treated another as if they were not good enough to be my friend, for those times when I stuck to my own kind, for those times when it did not seem worth the effort to do differently, I am sorry.

For those times when I was not a good steward of my money, the times when I purchased items for myself when I could have helped someone who was poor, for the times when I threw food away because I had too much before me, I am sorry.

For times when I refused to think about persons who are homeless, mentally challenged, or those in prison, I am sorry. For the times when I did not write a letter to my government representative expressing my concerns for people and circumstances in our community and in the world; for the times I did not speak up when someone spoke in a derogatory way about a person of color or from another country or of another religion, for the times when I thought it would be easier to let someone else do the work to bring justice, I am sorry.

For the times when a smile, a letter, a visit, or a phone call could have made a difference and I refrained from doing any of these, for the times when I was too busy with paperwork to remember that we are all called to be about people work, for the times when the church got in the way of Jesus, I am sorry.

For those times when revenge seemed better than reconciliation, for those times when I thought war was the only answer, for those times when I did not try to understand another point of view, I am sorry.

For those times when others did not see my point of view and I was quick to dismiss them, for the times when I labeled people as being too unbending when I know that I do not always bend easily, for the times when I know I write people off my list of acquaintances and friends, I am sorry.

For times when I have hurt family members, friends, and neighbors; for the times when I have argued over issues that are not important, for the times when I have belittled people for their opinions, I am sorry.

For the times I do care for your creation, for the times I trash something that can be recycled, for the times when I have ignored the lives of your animal world, Lord, I am sorry.
Lord, for those times when I refuse to recognize that I am excusing myself from obedience to you, when I rationalize my selfish actions, when I think it is kinder to let persons alone than it is to help them see your way, I am sorry.

And, Lord, especially for those times when I failed to offer the good news that Jesus came into the world to overcome oppression and injustice, to offer compassion, to bring unqualified forgiveness, and to love us all, that your kingdom might come on earth, I am most deeply and continually sorry.

Lord, in your mercy, forgive me.

These are the things I remember when the word of the Lord comes to me and I repent of my sin. You know, we have no idea what wickedness dwelt in the lives of the people of Ninevah. Undoubtedly, we assume immorality, cruelty, and all sorts of wicked behavior. But, in the heart of God, wickedness is wickedness, sin is sin.

When you heard my confession, you may have thought it was not that bad compared to what the people of Ninevah must have been like. Yet, failing to build God’s kingdom, failing to put God at the center of our lives, is sin and helps to perpetuate an atmosphere in our world where the most wicked of lifestyles can exist.

The people of Ninevah heard the word of the Lord and they immediately repented. When you hear the word of the Lord, how will you respond?

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