It’s always a little unnerving to be a guest preacher. I remember too well how we treated some substitute teachers when I was in school. I know none of you would do that to a guest pastor. But sometimes things happen that aren’t intended. A young preacher was thrilled to be invited to be a guest preacher in a prominent church, but when she was introduced to the congregation that Sunday morning, she was not so pleased. The lay leader got up to make the introduction and got inspired when he noticed a piece of cardboard that was temporarily filling in for a piece of glass in one of the sanctuary windows. He said, “Our preacher today is like that piece of cardboard there, a substitute for our pastor.” The young preacher decided she’d show them what she was made of. She preached a marvelous sermon, and when she finished the lay leader got up to thank her. He said, “Thank you for that marvelous message, pastor. I was wrong in my introductory comments, and I want to apologize. After hearing you proclaim God’s word we all know you are no cardboard substitute, you’re a real pane!”
Preachers are sometimes the other kind of pain and for good reason – it’s our job. In fact all of us as Jesus’ disciples are called to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable. Because it’s the comfortable who have the resources to change things for those who are afflicted.
Some of us here today need to be comforted because of personal suffering, broken relationships, grief or guilt or worry. There’s plenty of pain to go around, and if you’re doing ok personally one look at the morning headlines from Greece or Syria or Nigeria will fix that. We all have need for comfort, and that’s one reason we gather to worship; but when you look at how we Americans live compared to most other parts of the world, we must admit that we are quite comfortable . And that’s the other reason we worship – to give thanks and praise to God for our blessings, and especially for God’s saving grace, which is the only real comfort there is for some of the afflictions that plague us and our world.
Writer Anne Lamott says she has simplified her prayer life to two simple prayers: “Help, help help!” and “Thanks, thanks, thanks!” Ephesians puts the emphasis on the 2nd of those prayers, telling us that our primary job as Christians is to offer praise to God for the gift of salvation in Christ – for adoption into god’s grace in spite of our continual determination to prove ourselves unworthy of God’s unconditional love. I saw a post this week on Facebook that made those prayers from Anne Lamott even more meaningful. She was giving thanks for the 29th anniversary of her sobriety, a victory only possible with the help of a higher power. Thanks be to God.
We all know we need to praise God. The question is how to do that most effectively. Praise songs and prayers of thanksgiving are important. They lift our attitude toward gratitude and put things in perspective. Our praises need to be honest and from the heart, and not just empty words. Ever been to a funeral when you heard the praises of the deceased being given and you had to look in the casket to see if the eulogizers were talking about the same person you had known? That’s one of the nice things about praising God – we don’t have to make anything up – just tell the truth about God’s grace and love.
This passage from Ephesians reminded me of a warning I often give students in the preaching classes I teach. I tell them “don’t just give me pious platitudes; you’ve got to show us what those words mean for us in the 21st century world.” The God words are here in the introduction to this letter—“Blessed, blameless, adoption, praise, redemption, forgiveness, grace, mystery, fullness of time, heaven and earth, Holy Spirit….” All the right words, but what do they mean for our lives today? How do we make those words come alive in us so they offer life to others who desperately need to see and hear and feel it. What do they mean to a person who is lost and seeking his or her way in the darkness of addiction or crime or poverty or despair or over-consumption?
Words are cheap – even God words. Someone once said, “What you do speaks so loud I can’t hear what you’re saying.” A police officer pulled a man over and asked to see his license and registration. After taking those documents back to his cruiser the officer returned in a few minutes and apologized for the inconvenience and told the man he was free to go. The man was relieved but curious and asked the officer why he had pulled him over. The officer said, “Well you see, I was in the grocery just now and saw how rude you were to the other people in line and the clerk. So when I saw you get into a car with a Christian fish symbol on it, I just assumed that couldn’t be your car and wanted to make sure it wasn’t stolen.”
Author Madeleine L’Engle puts it this way – “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want to know the source of it.”
One of my favorite descriptions of how actions speak louder than words is from the great musical “My Fair Lady” where Eliza is in a romantic moment with her bumbling suitor, Freddie, who is all talk and no action. She sings to him these words:
“Don’t talk of stars, burning above,
If you’re in love, show me!
Tell me no dreams, filled with desire,
If you’re on fire, show me!
Here we are together in the middle of the night;
Don’t talk of spring, just hold me tight
Anyone who’s ever been in love will tell you that
This is no time for a chat!
Sing me no song, read me no rhyme;
Don’t waste my time, show me!
Don’t talk of June, don’t talk of fall;
Don’t talk at all! Show me!”
That’ll preach! Can’t you hear Jesus saying to us – “If you love me, show me?” In fact that’s exactly what he says to Peter – remember that scene on the beach after the resurrection in John’s Gospel. Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” And Peter says, “Yes, Lord you know I love you.” And Jesus says, “Then feed my sheep; feed my lambs; comfort those who are afflicted.”
The words that struck me from this Ephesians passage are in verse 13: “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised holy Spirit.” Marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit – what does that look like? Just a few weeks ago we celebrated the powerful gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Acts 2 describes that event as like the rush of a might wind with tongues of fire resting on every one of the Apostles. That’s powerful stuff – gale force winds and baptism by fire are not for sissies, and that power changed those apostles forever and through them the history of the world.
Those frightened, uneducated fishermen were suddenly able to communicate with people from all over the world as they praised God and told the story of redemption. But their praise didn’t stop with words – they also practiced what they preached. Pentecost doesn’t end with the pyrotechnics like 4th of July fireworks. Those early Christians are claimed and marked by a life-changing force that affects everything they do. The end of Acts 2 describes that effect on their daily lives – “44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds[j] to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home[k] and ate their food with glad and generous[l] hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
The church grew by leaps and bounds because it was acting like the church – praising God with both their words and their lives. St. Francis once said “Preach the gospel always, and when necessary use words.” One of my favorite sermons came from a high school valedictorian who gave the shortest graduation speech in history-just 17 words. She said, “2000 years ago, Jesus Christ said, ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ I can’t add anything to that.” And she sat down. We can’t add to that either with words, but we can witness powerfully to God’s love by actually living it – being the light that is so wonderful that others want to know what we’re up to and run toward the light of the world reflected through us. We are not the light but reflections of it through Christ who lives in and through us.
Being marked by the Holy Spirit is like being branded –the way ranchers mark their cattle to show the world to whom they belong. We belong to Christ – not to the church, not to any race or nation or ethnicity, not to any club or organization – we belong to Christ.
This passage from Ephesians begins with a phrase that would have been very familiar to all of the Jewish readers of its day. Every prayer used in the Jewish observance of Passover begins with the same phrase, “Blessed are you, Lord God.” Both Jews and Christians use these words to give thanks and praise to God for the gift of deliverance, one from slavery and the other from sin and death. But there are several major important differences for Christians.
For the Jews the commandments of God are the means of salvation, and they are only for the believers who are marked with the sign of circumcision – a very private sign that is not on public display – at least we hope not. For Christians the means of salvation is the sacrifice and love of God demonstrated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – and it is for all of creation. In Christ God doesn’t say, “I love you if you do this or don’t do that.” God says, “I love you, period.” You are chosen and adopted, redeemed and renewed if you take upon yourself the mark of discipleship and receive the power of the Holy Spirit. The mark of personal holiness is baptism, but that invisible water becomes a visible mark that is a light to the nations when we live as members of the body of Christ and imitate his sacrificial love for others.
I learned an important lesson about praising God from a mentor many years ago when I was a rather naïve seminary student. Dr. Roy Reed, who taught Worship and Music at MTSO, was not a warm and fuzzy professor. In fact he was very direct and blunt at times, but always honest. Dr. Reed died earlier this year, and those of us who attended his memorial service got a good chuckle when the pastor eulogizing him talked about Dr. Reed’s direct style. He said even Roy’s mother once commented that “Roy was always so darn honest that sometimes I just wanted to slap him.”
In retrospect I have come to appreciate and cherish Dr. Reed’s passion for truth, but not so much when I was on the receiving end as one of his students. One of those days was when I preached my senior sermon in chapel and quoted a Ray Stevens song, “Everything is Beautiful.” It’s a song about inclusivity and tolerance, but Professor Reed took exception to the chorus and challenged me about its theological soundness after the service. The chorus says:
“Everything is beautiful in its own way.
Like the starry summer night, or a snow-covered winter’s day.
And everybody’s beautiful in their own way.
Under God’s heaven, the world’s gonna find the way.”
In no uncertain terms Dr. Reed argued that the evil in the world is not beautiful. If he were here today he would probably remind me of the atrocities of ISIS or Boka Haram or the killings at Emmanuel AME church last month. That senior sermon was in 1971, and the news headlines then were all about Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos. Memories of My Lai, Selma, assassinations and riots in 1968, student deaths at Jackson State and Kent State, and the first big oil spill in Santa Barbara were all fresh in our minds. The headlines don’t change from one generation to the next, just different names and places. Lots of very unbeautiful stuff.
With the benefit of more life experience I came to understand Dr. Reed’s point. Faith and hope are necessary for human survival, but so is a healthy balance of prophetic realism that shines the spotlight of truth on injustices that need to be made right. Sometimes when I reflect on my own life and career I find it hard to praise God because I see the lack of progress we are making as a human race. The church and the world do not seem to be much closer to God’s vision for creation than we were that day 44 years ago.
But when I am tempted to lament rather than praise God I remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” When we are impatient or find it hard to praise God, we who are marked by the Holy Spirit know that our ways are not God’s ways and our time frame is not God’s eternal perspective. And so, even when we stumble in the darkness, unable to see where we’re going, needing to be comforted, we still walk with confidence and praise God who has claims us as his own. We praise God even though we don’t know what tomorrow brings, because we do know for sure who holds the future.
If I haven’t been enough of a real pain so far, let me leave you with one final question originally asked by Rev. David Otis Fuller, a 20th century Baptist pastor. The early Christians and many people of different faiths today still live in fear of persecution and even death for publicly professing their faith and praising God. Heaven forbid that should happen here, but imagine it was illegal here and Hilliard’s finest raided this sanctuary this morning and rounded us all up and arrested us for being Christians, the question is this – would there be enough evidence to convict you or me?
I urge all of you to pray about that question, and if like me you are unhappy with the answer you must give to that question, take heart, and praise the God of our Lord Jesus Christ who loves and adopts us and empowers us to keep growing as his witnesses to the world. Thanks be to God who alone gives us the victory.
Preached at Hilliard United Methodist Church, Hilliard, Ohio, July 12, 2015