June 11, 2017
Romans 8:28 All things work together for good for those who love God…
Psalm 8: How exalted is your Name in all the world…
Genesis 1:21,22 and God saw that it was good. God blessed them…
Matthew 28:20 And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
Theologian Karl Barth once suggested that the most pressing question people ask when hearing a sermon is this: “Is it true?” Is God really present in our lives and our world in a way that the preached words suggest might be true?
Peter Marty, a Lutheran pastor, elaborated on this dictum and stated:
Some years ago I decided there is an antecedent question of equal importance: “Is the preacher true?” For me, this question doesn’t circle around whether the preacher avoids telling lies or making false claims, but whether the preacher’s own life is truth-shaped. Does that life have an inner and outer coherence to it?
Perhaps it’s like a bicycle wheel that is wonderfully true, and gyroscopically spinning straight. The real question then is this: Has the preacher done enough truthful living to lend credibility to the words offered from the pulpit?
That’s a very profound, personal, and frankly uncomfortable query for any clergyperson to consider; and it follows that any preacher worthy of stepping into a pulpit should probably reflect first on his or her own integrity of life before offering words of advice for others. Now that’s a sobering thought in bold relief; one that hits me very close to home.
In light of this; listen, then, to the following very compelling narrative by a published author. It speaks powerfully to the necessity of truth and integrity in all of life, not just ministry. The writer states:
My father was a preacher who believed it was important to memorize verses of the Bible. On Mondays he’d give my older brother and me a verse written out on a little white card. We were expected to recite it from memory by dinner at the end of the week when our father would point to one of us and say something like “Romans 8:28.” If we didn’t start chirping away with “For all things work together for good for those who love God,” we’d have to leave the table.
By the time I was a teenager I had memorized a lot of the Bible, not out of love for the sacred text but because I didn’t want to be dismissed from Saturday evening dinner. I never paid attention to the words. But they were still in me.
When I was not quite 17, my parents’ marriage broke apart. My mother left our home on Long Island and went to live with her sister in Dallas. My father left the church he had started and just disappeared. My big brother dropped out of college, got a construction job, and helped me finish high school. I got an after-school job at a gas station. Together we got by.
Since we had lived in the church’s parsonage, it fell to us boys to move the family’s stuff out of the house. I don’t remember what happened to most of it. I just remember boxing up our family’s life.
Oddly, my brother and I didn’t talk about how our world had crumbled. This wasn’t just because we weren’t good at sharing our feelings. Mostly it was because we couldn’t afford emotion. We were too worried about the next meal and a place to stay.
The following Christmas my brother and I decided we would go to Dallas to visit my mother. We didn’t have the money for a plane or bus ticket, so we did what young people sometimes do when they’re not thinking clearly. We decided to hitchhike from Long Island to Dallas.
By the end of the first day we were somewhere near Harpers Ferry in the Blue Ridge-Shenandoah Valley on Interstate 81. It was snowing hard, the sun was long gone, and we stood on the entrance ramp with our thumbs sticking out. As the snow got heavier, there were fewer and fewer cars. After two hours, we finally saw a pair of headlights pull over in front of us. It was a Virginia state trooper. We were expecting a lecture about how dangerous, not to mention illegal, it was to hitchhike. Instead he told us that the highway had been closed for two hours and that after attending to an accident up the road he would come back for us and take us to a diner that was still open.
We stayed put on the side of the dark highway in the blizzard. After months of hustling our way through the immediate issues of making life work, my brother and I were finally forced to talk to each other. We took a stab at describing our situation, but it didn’t go very well after I mentioned that we were basically disposable to the people who were supposed to love us. We tried to pass the time by quizzing each other on sports statistics. Neither of us had ever been very good at that.
Then my brother pointed to me and said, “Romans 8:28.” We spent much of that night asking each other to recite the verses of the Bible we had memorized but never truly heard. At one point I found myself saying the precious lines of Isaiah 43: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you . . . because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” By the time I finished reciting those words, I was crying.
That night, while reciting a passage about the sustaining love of God which cast out fear that was too deep for me to even acknowledge; that night became the turning point in my life.
I’ve told this story before and keep telling myself that it’s all behind me now. I’ve been blessed to be in one position of leadership after another. But what I finally learned in hearing that text was that my experience has stayed with me every step of the way.
I don’t keep taking chances in offering my leadership to others because I expect to succeed; I take them because I know I can handle it if I fail. What’s the worst that can happen? Will I be alone, broke, and abandoned? Been there. Done that. Will I make humiliating mistakes? Been there, done that too. I tried hitchhiking on a closed interstate – how senseless is that? I learned at the bottom and very depth of life, that I found the relentless love of God who was with me and always will be, no matter how heavy the snowfall, or how deep the waters go.
When you find God at the bottom of existence itself, it’s then possible to enjoy life’s highs and lows without fearing you’ll fall beneath the love of a Savior. No one can be fully alive, and no one can lead, without getting rid of that fear.
This story has a bearing for each of us as we contemplate our own journeys in faith. The author, by the way, is M. Craig Barnes … and today he is the President of Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, NJ, – a leading educational institution in its own right. It is especially fitting on a Sunday we’ve designated as Graduates-Sunday to hold a special time when we recognize the accomplishments and educational achievements of our students here at church. And for everyone else, the point is not only to speak and say things in life that are true, but to lead your life in such a way that it speaks volumes about the truth that you are living in your own life’s journey, and how you are living with integrity.
All this we ask …
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
CREDITS, NOTES, & REFERENCES: available on request