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Thursday, August 02, 2007

Preaching to Future Preachers

Here is my seminary chapel homily from this morning:

Kramer Chapel Homily
August 2, 2007

Acts 26: 1-23

St. Paul was called before kings and governors to explain himself and defend his apostolic ministry. In so doing, he gives us a very nice summary of what a minister in God’s church is to be about.

He says that God sent him: “To open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God. So that they may receive the forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”

God-willing, many of you will one day receive a divine call to serve as a pastor to a congregation. In many respects, that is the most gratifying work you will ever do. Not a day passes when I don’t miss some aspect of my parish ministry in Pittsburgh.

You will have your ups and downs, hopefully more ups than downs. The devil, the world and your flesh will try to confuse you. You will come to the point where you enjoy it when people pat you on the back and say, “that sure was a nice sermon pastor,” or “that sure was an interesting bible class pastor.” You will begin to crave their compliments. You will be tempted to insert stories and jokes into your sermons – not because they serve as useful illustrations – but because you know the people will like them. You will seek the approval of men. You will do this because you are sinful and you love it when all people speak well of you.

Over the course of time, you will read books and go to conferences promising to enlighten you with techniques and methods for growing the church, improving stewardship and reaching the lost. The latest ecclesiastical fads will tempt you with promises of success.

You will return to your congregation refreshed and excited and enthusiastic to try out the new things you’ve learned. But for most of you, most of time, there will be very little noticeable long-term effect. Nothing will ever seem to change. Your words will still appear to fall on deaf ears, hence the temptation to liven things up with more cute stories under the pretense that they are useful illustrations.

Very little that is written and said today in the contemporary church scene, very little that is written and said to supposedly help pastors do a better job has anything to do with religion. A lot of it is really, when you boil it down, just management and leadership techniques or applied sociology, psychology or some other social science.

But don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of useful stuff to be learned from the business world and the social sciences. You might gain the ability to use your time more wisely or communicate more effectively and that would be good. But somewhere in the midst of the programs and the movements and the trends, the gospel itself is often obscured or forgotten.

We do what we do because lives depend on it. Faith comes by hearing and how shall they hear without a preacher? We do what we do because people receive the forgiveness of their sins via preaching and sacraments. We do what we do because lives depend on it.

There were times when Jesus was well-liked and popular with the crowds. And there were times when he was not. In is a common sinful reaction to shoot the messenger when the message is unwelcome. I have experienced this and you probably have too.

Did you ever quit a church because the pastor rubbed you the wrong way? Most likely, you sinned for doing so. Pastors are fallible and sinful but their job is to rub you the wrong way. In fact, I am doing my level best up here in the pulpit this morning to offend you. I have to make an effort of this because – as I have often been told – I am a nice person. I’m a nice person and I want you to like me. I don’t like conflict.

But the preacher is not called to be nice. And by nice, I mean someone who is considered harmless or palatable to all people on every occasion. These kind of nice people are palatable, but they are seldom noticeable.

The preacher must never be harmless. God is not harmless. God Word is dangerous. It will hurt you and it will even kill you. It had better. Your preaching had better hurt people from time to time and it had better kill people every time.

This is not an excuse to be a jerk to your people. Don’t leave here saying Stiegemeyer told us to be abrasive jerks. Maybe you are a nice person, harmless. But it’s just as likely that you are already an abrasive jerk. Most likely, you are a little bit of both. You are a sinner, after all. And so am I. Most of you need to sand off your rough edges before you will be fit to serve in the pastoral office. And for all of you, self mortification will be a life-long enterprise.

But if you are not willing to offend people by hammering them with God’s law, then you are in the wrong place today. If you are not willing to lose your friends, to be lonely, to be rejected, to possibly even alienate members of your own family, for the sake of Christ, you should not be a student at this seminary.

In the church, as in the world, the people who control the money often have the most influence. But not over you. Whether it is practical or not, whether it is cost-effective or not, in season and out of season, you speak the message of Jesus Christ. You open the eyes of the blind. You bring people out of darkness into the light. You snatch people from the power of Satan to God.

And you will find that many people, even many every-Sunday-church people, prefer the darkness to the light. They don’t think of it this way, but they prefer to be under the power of Satan than under the power of God. And that’s because Satan markets himself as your best and truest friend. Satan never asks you to do anything that you don’t want to do. He never places unreasonable demands on you or tells you to do things that are hard. He only wants you to be comfortable and happy. “Hey Jesus, you’re hungry. Turn these stones to bread. I’m just looking out for you.” Satan will tell you things you want to hear. He will make you laugh. He will make you happy. He will promise you the world. And unlike God with his impossible demands, Satan will accept you just the way you are…. Or so goes the illusion.

Be like St. Paul, who in turn, was like the Lord Jesus. Go out there and hurt people. Bend them; break them; pommel them with the hammer of God’s Law. But only after beating yourself to a pulp beforehand. You must hurt them in order to heal them. You must kill them in order for the power of God to move through your ministry to raise them back to life again.

I am here to tell you that not one of us deserves to be called a pastor in God’s church. And I will go even one step further. Not one of us is fit to be called a child of God.

But I am also here to say that you have been died for. God is reconciled to sinners by the blood of Jesus. And that is true of me, of you and every man, woman and child you will ever be privileged to meet. Don’t try to impress people with your skills. Don’t try to win them over with your fabulous personalities. Tell them that they have been liberated from the bondage which keeps them from being truly human. Tell them that they have been emancipated from their sins. Tell them that they will rise from the dead by the power of Christ.

We do what we do – not for the glory and the money and the chicks. We do what we do because lives depend on it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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