February 9, 2014

Rev. John Watts

Nampa First UMC


Romans 12:9-13


It was quite a shock when I heard my first Baptist sermon.  I was used to Methodist sermons.  I was used to a mild-mannered preacher standing perfectly still, speaking in a calm, soothing voice — a stained glass voice as it is sometimes called — and delivering an intelligent sounding lecture which sometimes I could understand and more often I could not.  This particular Baptist preacher — his name was Doyle Collins — must have gone to a different school.  He had a whole different style.  He would rant and he would rave.  He would raise his voice.  He would pound his fist.  He sounded like he was really, really mad at us.  He sounded exactly like grownups sound about the time they say, “I’ve had it with you kids!”  I half expected to be punished.  I remember clearly that he scared me.

Later I heard stories about Doyle Collins style preachers.  There was one who had worked himself up into a fevered pitch and was putting on quite a show inside this big enclosed pulpit.  A kid turned to a parent and said, “What are we going to do if he gets loose?”  Or another child said after church, “Mom, I’ve decided to be a preacher.”  The mom said, “That’s great, but why?”  “Well, I figure I’ll have to go to church anyway and it will be more fun to stand up and yell than to sit down and listen.”

I learned in seminary what Doyle Collins apparently also learned.  Before you preach, you go over your manuscript and at certain key points you write in the margin “AWYLH.”  That’s a code that only preachers are supposed to understand.  I’ll let you in on the secret.  “AWYLH” stands for “Argument Weak, Yell Like Hell.”

We can have fun at the expense of preachers like Doyle Collins, but I’ll tell you one thing.  When he preached, no one slept.

My career in ministry started at EnglewoodUnitedMethodistChurch in Salem, Oregon.  They hired me to work with their youth while I was a student at WillametteUniversity.  Part of my job was to participate in worship.  Occasionally I would preach, but not very often.  Usually I just had a small reading part, but they still wanted me up front, facing the congregation so they could see me throughout the entire worship service.  That’s actually a tough assignment.  To sit still and look interested while you know people are watching you.  Kind of like Joe Biden and John Boehner during the State of the Union address.  It would have been hard under the best of circumstances but it was made much harder because of my other part-time job.  I was the weekend night watchman at the OregonStateSchool for the Blind.  That means I would stay up all night Saturday night and then ride my bicycle across town and go to church on Sunday morning.  It was nearly impossible for me to stay awake through the entire sermon.  When people laughed, I’m sure they were laughing at me, not at the preacher’s jokes.  In fact, I’m not even sure I was able to stay awake through the entire sermon on the Sundays when I was preaching.

Now of course, just keeping people awake does not necessarily have much to do with the quality of your preaching.  Someone said to a pastor, “Your sermon certainly kept me awake.  But then again, so do the raccoons outside my bedroom window.”  But when your preaching puts people to sleep who have had a good night’s sleep and several cups of strong coffee, it’s probably an indication that you could do better.

“It is a sin to make the Gospel dull and uninteresting.”  Dorothy Sayers said that.  She wrote a lot of exciting detective stories and she believed that when the Gospel is communicated as it should be, it will be every bit as exciting!   The Gospel is not boring.  It’s the way we tell people about it that sometimes is.  So when we bore people with the Gospel, when we give people the impression that it is boring, we are misrepresenting God’s good news.  We are bearing false witness.  And some of you will recognize that as a sin.  It’s one of the Ten Commandments.  “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”  We have no right to take something so intrinsically exciting and energizing and captivating and turn it into something that bores people to tears!

We would have a lawsuit on our hands if one of the Super Bowl ads lied about someone else’s product.  If the Chrysler ad made up something about Ford Motors.  “Did you know they are now building their engines out of plastic?  It cuts down the weight and improves the gas mileage.”  Something ridiculous like that.  They would lose much more than the $4 million they spent on the ad in the ensuing lawsuit.

God should sue some of us preachers.   “Gospel” means “good news”.  So when we make it sound like it’s bad news or boring news or unimportant news, we are sinning against God.  Paul warns against that sin.  He said, “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord” (Romans 12:11).

Speaking of the Super Bowl, some might say it was boring this year.  Not me.  My team got destroyed and I still loved every minute.  Every Super Bowl Sunday, I wonder something.  I wonder what would happen if we could take just a fraction of all the anticipation and energy and excitement wrapped up in a football game and bring it into our churches?  Or maybe you don’t particularly care about football.  I know such people exist.  I married one.  Whatever it is that you are really passionate about — what if you were as excited about being a follower of Jesus as you are about that?

I introduced this subject by talking about preaching.  And I

may have given the impression that it’s all up to me.  That I’m the

one whose job it is to keep the Gospel interesting and exciting and to re-charge your spiritual batteries each week.  Well, I guess it is my job.  I take it seriously.  But the truth is it’s not just my job!  It’s your job, too!  We’re all in this together!  We are all responsible for what we do with the good news God has entrusted to us.  We are all preachers and teachers and evangelists.   Like it or not, people see us, hear us, interact with us, and form opinions about the Jesus that we claim to love.  It’s a sin for me, but it’s also a sin for you to misrepresent Jesus.  It’s a sin for all of us to make the Gospel dull and uninteresting.

So, how do we keep from sinning?  Well, we don’t.  That’s the first thing to say.  It’s not entirely true to say that it’s all up to us.  The Gospel is true and powerful and persuasive in spite of how well or how poorly we do our job of communicating it to others.  It’s important to remember that.  If keeping Christianity going were entirely up to Christians like us, the Church would have died out centuries ago.  It’s God who keeps breathing new life into the Church, not us.

But God does use us.  Those of us willing to be used.  And there are three simple ways we can make ourselves useful.  Through our words, through our deeds, and through our passion.  I’m going to move through words and deeds real quickly, because what we are really talking about today is passion.

First, God wants us to speak words that communicate our faith.  I know that terrifies most of you.  We aren’t comfortable sharing our faith with words.  And we are most uncomfortable when people use words to share their faith with us.  We love that saying attributed to Francis of Assisi.  “Preach the Gospel at all times, if necessary, use words.”  We love that because it gives us permission not to talk about our faith.  But we need to talk about our faith.  We need to learn how to do it in a way that draws people in and doesn’t push people away.  We need to preach the Gospel at all times and, since it is necessary, we use words.

Second, God wants us to do deeds that communicate our faith.  Love in action.  If you say you love someone but you never do a thing to show your love, your love is suspect.  This one is so obvious I’m going to just leave it there and go on to the last one.

Third, God want us to say the words and do the deeds with passion.  That’s what Paul is talking about.  “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.”  If you’re excited about your faith, it’s going to show.  You won’t be able to hide that.  And if you are bored with your faith, that too will show.  You won’t be able to hide that either.

There was a study on teacher effectiveness.  The conclusion was that the best teachers are the teachers who are convinced that their particular subject is absolutely essential for their students to master.  They believe that if their students miss out on whatever it is that they are teaching, it will cripple their lives.  They simply must get what that teacher is teaching.  With that attitude, students tend to get it.  That passion is contagious.  It’s been shown that far more than any particular skill or technique, passion about what you are teaching that is the best predictor of success in teaching.

Soren Kierkegaard said, “We will lose this generation not because of sin, but because of lack of passion.”

What’s the source of this passion?  It’s God.  God is the one who gets us excited about the Gospel.  God is the one who drew us to church this morning.  God is the one who uses each part of this worship service, including these stumbling words of mine, to touch hearts and to change lives.  So, if you aren’t very into things this morning.  If you, frankly, are feeling rather bored, it does no good to feel guilty about that.  It does no good to try real hard to feel something that just isn’t there.  What does good is so simple!  Let God come into your life.  Let God back in if you’ve shut him out for awhile.  With God comes passion for God.  With God comes enthusiasm.

That’s an interesting word.  It’s a word with an interesting history.  Today it means anything we might enjoy or take interest in.  We can be enthusiastic football fans.  We can be enthusiastic quilters or hunters or singers.  The word can also just mean that we have in general a positive outlook on life.  “We are enthusiastic.”  Which is pretty much the opposite of saying, “We are bored”.  But originally the word “enthusiasm” had a more specific meaning.  It meant what happens to a person when God comes in.  The “en” means “in”.  The “thuse” means “theos”, which is the Greek word for “God”.  So “enthusiasm” means God dwelling within.  When God dwells within, great things start to happen, not the least of which is a great enthusiasm for getting to know God better and better and growing in God’s love more and more.

It’s actually very much like falling in love.  It’s more emotional than rational, although it’s a good idea not to let our minds be swept entirely away by the emotions.  It’s very exciting.  It’s something you give yourself to joyfully, because you want to, not because you have to.  But also, like falling in love with a person, so too with God, when we have been in love for a long time it becomes more and more important to love as an act of the will even at those times when we may not feel the passion we once felt.

Mystics for centuries have described their love for God with words that sound like what you might find in love letters.  It’s almost embarrassing to read some of what they have written.  It’s like you are reading something so full of passion it was not meant for anyone else’s eyes.  There is no hint of boredom in how the mystics describe their relationship with God.  There is also very little that is logical, rational, or easy to understand.

One famous mystic was Blaise Pascal.  He was also a mathematician.  He was one of the most brilliant men who ever lived.  When he was 11 he had worked out for himself the first 23 propositions of Euclid.  At 16 he published a paper on geometry that Descartes, a fairly bright guy in his own right, refused to believe could have been written by someone so young.  Even though he lived nearly 400 years ago, he has been called the father of the modern computer.

But Pascal was also a Christian who knew that the mind was not the way to God.  Even his own unusually gifted mind.  God is found in the heart.  “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”  He’s the one who wrote that.  I once was given some stationery intended for romantic correspondence that had those words on it.  But I’m quite sure he had more in mind his love affair with God.

I want to close today with what Pascal left for us in his journal, dated November 23, 1654.

Ten thirty till midnight.

Fire, fire, fire.

I met him.

Not the God of the philosophers,

Not the God of the theologians,

Not the God of the mathematicians.

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Fire, fire, fire.

Joy, fire, joy, fire.

Joy, joy, joy.

Unspeakable joy.

O God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, come into our hearts in a fresh, new way today.  Clear out the cobwebs.  Clean out the dust.  Fill the emptiness.  May we feel your love.  May we respond to your love with a passionate love for you and for yours.  May we wake up from the sleepwalk that’s gone on for way too long and may we enter into life that is life indeed.  Life in you.  In Jesus’s name,   Amen.