Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Look! It's a Sermon! Read it! Critique It! Please!

Rev. Patti W &H
Epiphany Sunday
January 2, 2011
“What Gift Can We Bring?”

Three years ago, I was the pastor of a small, United Methodist congregation in Danville, Virginia. One of my most faithful members was a man named Homer. Homer was a “salt of the earth” kind of guy; the sort of person who would knock on the parsonage door and hand me a bag full of vegetables from his garden, the sort of person who had more spirituality in his pinky finger than I had in my whole body, the sort of person who everyone, family, friends, church members, and rookie pastors, admired and loved. That January, Homer had a rather severe heart attack. First he went to the local hospital, but after tests and consultations with physicians, he was transferred to Duke Medical Center, about 70 miles away. After a lot of discussions with surgeons and cardiologists, and several days in the hospital, he and his family agreed that bypass surgery was his best chance for survival. The surgery was scheduled for the next morning, and his family called me that afternoon to let me know. I began making preparations to go down to Duke to be with the family, keeping in the back of my mind the possibility that this surgery might not go well. I let my daughter’s day care provider know that I would be dropping her off as soon as the center opened at 6am, and made a “Plan B” in case I couldn’t be back by closing time at 6pm. I arranged for someone to come and let my dogs out in the middle of the day, because I knew I’d be gone a long time. I made sure that my daughter had enough bottles, diapers, and spare clothes to choke a horse. I laid out my clothes. The next morning, I woke up at 4:30am. It was snowing in Danville and there was already a thin layer of snow on the ground. I got ready, got Susanna ready, dropped her off at daycare, and began my journey. It was snowing for the first 20 or so miles of my drive and raining for the last 50 or so miles. The main road between Danville and Durham is a two-lane country road and not a lot of fun to drive in bad weather, in early-morning January darkness. But I kept driving, determined to make it to Duke, determined to be there during Homer’s surgery.
What was propelling me down the road was not necessarily pastoral duty, although that was certainly a small aspect of it. After all, it’s part of the role of the pastor to be present in times of crisis, and I would have made that drive for anyone in my congregation. However, the reason I was compelled to drive those 70 miles through snow, and rain, and darkness, was not a sense of duty, but a relationship with the man who, even as I was driving, was being prepped for major surgery that would either save his life or end it. Over the 18 months I had been his pastor, I had become very fond of Homer. He had opened his heart and his life to me, had taught me a great deal about life and faith and ministry, and was really a bright spot in what was a difficult time in my life and ministry. Homer had embraced me as his pastor despite my youth, despite my inexperience, and despite the mistakes I made as a result of both. He loved me in spite of all my faults and failings. And so I drove down to Duke in the snow, in the rain, in the darkness, found my way to the hospital, to the parking garage, and followed the maze of hallways to the surgical waiting area, where I finally found his family. Homer had already gone into surgery, and it would be another six hours before I would finally see him, still under anesthesia, his chest covered in bandages, and with tubes everywhere. But he was alive, and the surgeons had given his family hope that he would have a complete recovery. That news gave me joy, and my joy increased as I was able to relay the good news to the rest of my congregation and made my return trip to Danville that much easier. That day, that visit that had begun with a sense of duty, had become about a relationship and about a gift. My relationship with Homer was a gift from God, and my response to that gift from God was to drive down to Duke that yucky January morning, to offer my presence and prayers to his family as we waited for news of his surgery, to rejoice with them when the surgeon gave us good news, and to lead his family in a prayer of thanksgiving when we were finally allowed to be at his bedside. In essence, my response to the gift of Homer’s relationship with me was to offer myself, my time, my energy, my presence, and my prayers, to him and his family.

The scripture for today, Matthew 2:1-12, tells about another journey, another gift, and another relationship. Listen to how Matthew tells the story:
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'" 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

The wise men were from the East, possibly from what is the modern-day nation of Iran. They had been watching the skies for a while-we don’t know how long-for a star that would signify the birth of a baby who would be known as king of the Jews. As soon as they saw this star appear, they gathered provisions, packed their bags and their camels, acquired their gifts, and set out on their journey, heading west, following the bright star they saw.. It was a very long journey, a journey of several hundred miles, a journey most likely done on foot or maybe on camel, so it’s highly likely that the wise men did not arrive in Israel until several months, maybe even more than a year, after Jesus’ birth. It was also likely a journey whose purpose initially was diplomatic: representatives from one kingdom visiting the newly-born ruler of another kingdom. The wise men went first to Jerusalem, because it was the captial city, because this baby was supposed to be a king, and royalty and rulers almost always live in capitol cities. And they did encounter a king. They encountered Herod, who was the political leader of the Jewish people, and who directed the wise men to Bethlehem, where prophets had said that Jesus would be born. Herod deviously made them promise to return to him and tell him exactly where Jesus was, so that he “could come and worship” this new Messiah. In reality, Herod was threatened by reports of this new king, and had no intention of worshipping Jesus. Whether the wise men realized Herod’s false pretenses as the time, we do not know. We know that they continued to Bethlehem, that they followed the star until it stopped at their destination.
Finally, after months of travel, after being guided only by a star and ancient writings, the wise men arrived at their destination, at the home of Joseph, and Mary, and Jesus. And their response, according to the writer of Matthew, was threefold. First, they were overcome with joy as soon as they realized that they had finally arrived at their destination. They hadn’t even seen Jesus yet, but they were overcome with joy. The Greek word that’s used in this verse indicates a joy that is God-given, a joy that is transformational, a joy that indicates some sort of connection with God. Second, when they entered the home and saw Jesus with Mary, they knelt and worshipped him. The verse doesn’t say that they talked about about how cute Jesus was, admired Jesus, or even revered him as a king. The verse says that the wise men worshipped him. They saw Jesus for who he was: the Messiah, God in human flesh, the savior of the world. Third and finally, they offered him three gifts: gold (a traditional gift for a king), frankincense (a gift fit for a high priest), and myrrh (an ointment used to preserve bodies after death, because Jesus would die for the sins of the world). These gifts show us that the wise men knew that this child was not just any king. We don’t know how long they stayed with Jesus and his parents, only that it was probably at least overnight, because it was in a dream that God warned them not to return to Herod, but to go home a different route. God spoke, the wise men listened, and they returned home by another route. We hear nothing about them for the rest of the New Testament, but two things are clear from this passage: first, that their visit to Jesus brought forth responses from both Herod and from Jesus’ parents. Herod’s response is to feel frightened, to feel threatened that there might be a king out there more powerful and more popular than himself. Mary and Joseph’s response is less clear, but the mere fact that this story makes it into Matthew’s narrative points to the possibility that they shared the wise men’s visit with multiple people, perhaps even the author himself. The second thing that is clear from this passage is that the wise men’s visit to Jesus brought forth a transformation within themselves and the clearest evidence of that transformation is found in their worship of Jesus and their obedience of God’s warning. It indicates a relationship and a response as a result of that relationship. They came bearing gifts, and they received an even greater gift in return.

What made me drive 70 miles in cruddy weather to wait and pray with a family? A relationship, the gift I received from that relationship, and my desire to give the gift of myself in return. What made the wise men travel hundreds of miles to come and worship Jesus? A relationship, the desire to offer the tangible gifts they had brought and the intangible gifts of their worship to the one true king.

We’ve talked a lot about Christmas over the past few weeks. Christmas is all about a relationship...what God gives to us, what we give to Him in response. Not about duty, but about a relationship. That is the heart of Christmas, the heart of the Gospel...a God who loved us enough to come down and live among us, to be human like us. That is the true, and most important gift of Christmas. God gave us the gift of God’s Son at Christmas. What’s our response? What gift can we give in return? We can offer ourselves back to God.

[play video]


Anonymous said...

At first glance I would just suggest having a follow-up after the video? Maybe reiterating that God wants us no matter who we are and what we've done and close with a prayer of Thanksgiving - inviting people to turn their hurts and burdens over to God? That might not feel comfortable for this congregation to close the sermon in prayer like that, but I usually find it effective to not just show the video and let it hang but to wrap it is a great video - I showed it last Sunday!! Seemed to make a good impact for a number of folks.

Terri said...

I really like your story - it is just perfect for the day - powerful and illustrative of the Gospel message as you are discerning it at this point in time: that God gives us the gift of God's self in the person of Jesus, a gift of mutuality = relationship and love.

I am not sure of the context in which you are preaching: what is the congregaton expecting? what does your denomination expect of preachers? Specifically do you need to spend as much time unpacking the scripture and giving them an exegetical lesson?

OR can you edit that section a bit - keep in just enough to show the clear connection you are making between your story of "gift" of relationship/love/compassion/care and the heart of the Gospel - God's gift to us?

If it were me I would not use the video - I think your story speaks clearly and more effectively than the video does and as a result the video clip seems redundant and cliche. Your story is better, I think.

Lastly, I'd conclude with something about not only how God has gifted us with relationship of love, Jesus, God's self - and that we are called to respond to that gift by giving of ourselves in return - BUT also that we are to be the gift of God's love to others through compassion, love, relationship. - That at least is what I am hearing in what you offer here.

It's a good sermon, I like it alot. These are just a few little suggestions to tighten it up a bit, but only if they feel that way to you, too.

Wounded and Healing said...

Sarah-I am planning on saying a brief prayer after the video. I don't know exactly what I might say in addition to that. If I come up with something good, then I'll say it before the prayer. But if I can't, then I'll just pray after the video.

Terri-I can't NOT use the video at this point. The media people have already downloaded it and it's in the bulletin. And in regards to the exegetical work, Methodists tend to spend a little bit more time in the scripture. A 20-minute sermon is very normal. Although, this afternoon I cut out some phrases that I thought weren't essential.

Both of you: thank you for the comments! I appreciate them!

Ron Amundson said...

I find the segue between parts pretty abrupt, and things dont click until the end, where in they do so exceedinglywonderfully.

You know your congregation, so this approach may work out just fine... but if it were me in the pew, I'd be sitting there halfway through the scripture part scratching my head and likely not listening so much. Again, you know your audience, where as most sermons I hear lean towards 5 minutes, rather than 20.

I do really like how you tie everything together in the end though. That rocks!