Sermons

When I went off to college in 1962, my intent was to earn a bachelor’s degree in order to qualify for the Presbyterian seminary. Somewhere along the road of life I got sidetracked. However, I still believe I could give a good sermon. Check out this page from time to time to see what I would say – assuming someone would allow me to stand at the pulpit.

I assure you, most of my sermons would be very short… hardly enough time for you to take a nap.

The Last Lecture

Randy Pausch , a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh was diagnosed with cancer. The following is what he had to say about his lot in life.

For the latest information on Randy, go to: http://www.randypausch.com

Nick’s Testimony

Think twice before you say “Woe is me.”

Sermon 4: Help My Unbelief

The title of this sermon is based on the man who told Jesus that he did indeed believe what Jesus was saying, but he still had doubts. Many of us have doubts, and those who don’t have them, should get some. Thomas doubted, and so should we.

In a previous sermon I quoted Anthony deMello. At the same seminar where he said, “The worst enemy of spirituality is organized religion,” he also remarked that “the best friend of spirituality is doubt.”

To deMello’s way of thinking, if we accept all Biblical teachings at face value, we will never truly understand God. Of course, he also believed it was impossible to truly understand God. That is the main paradox of spirituality; we must always seek what we will never find.

Father deMello described the Bible as a ‘finger pointing to the moon.” He said most of its pages are parables – not necessarily to be taken at face value. We should study the Bible stories very carefully to learn what God is trying to teach us. We should look beyond the Bible – beyond the finger pointing – in order to see God and the messages. All too often, we wind up worshiping the Bible and never looking to see what God is trying to tell us. In deMello’s words, we end up sucking on the finger as a baby sucks on a pacifier.

I’ve often heard people question the intelligence of the twelve apostles. Time and time again, Jesus had to give them a more precise explanation of his parables… and many times they still didn’t quite understand. They had God in their midst and found the messages problematic. Do we really think we can do better using a book that has been translated so many different ways that it’s difficult to imagine what the messages were in the original Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek?

I used to be a heavy smoker. Now I’m just heavy. When I was a teenager and started smoking occasionally, we all knew smoking was bad for us. We called them coffin nails and cancer sticks; and that was before there was any real research to support those claims. We joked and said, “It will take twenty years to get cancer. By then, they’ll have a cure.” That was over forty years ago and many people still haven’t recognized the message. We believe what we want to believe. The stronger that belief, the less likely we’ll do anything to change things.

While working with IBM I was sent to a seminar on creativity. During the week, the instructor pointed out that the worst enemy of creativity is the right answer. Once we believe we have a problem solved, we stop looking for a better solution.

How many of us have misplaced something? When asked, we’ll always report that we found it in the last place we looked. Why look any farther? Once we’ve found something, it would be stupid to continue looking. When it comes to a lost object, that makes all the sense in the world. But when we’re talking about the solution to a problem, it doesn’t make any sense.

When the researchers developed the transistor and used it to replace vacuum tubes in radios, televisions, and computers, they didn’t stop looking for a better solution. They developed smaller and smaller components and computers went from filling large rooms to sitting on desks. I programmed and installed computers for IBM from 1968 until 1974. My lap top has far more memory and disk space than all those computers combined. If those scientists had stopped looking, I’d be typing this on my IBM electric Selectric. If I made a mistake, I’d have to get a new piece of paper and start over.

This same theory can be used in most industries. If Henry Ford had stopped after the Model T, our lives would be totally different. If the phone company had settled for Alexander’s first model, our world of communications would not exist. If the packaged food industry had stopped after Spam and tomato soup, we probably wouldn’t overeat as much as we do.

If we believe that we know all there is to know about any subject, we are sadly mistaken. That’s why most of us continue to study things long after we’ve completed our formal education.

We’ll continue to read books and magazines on the subjects that interest us. If we have a hobby, we’ll constantly look for ways to improve what we do.

So, why do we stop trying to learn about God? Those of us who believe in a Higher Power might laugh at the Atheist who flatly denies the existence of God. We think he or she should make an effort to prove it. But what do we, the believers, do to prove that God is real? If we simply accept the word of our priest or pastor, we’re doing ourselves a disservice.

One of my favorite passages in the Bible is “Consider the lilies of the field. They neither reap nor sow, yet God dresses them in beautiful clothing. Would God do any less for us? Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and everything else will take care of itself.”

If you’re an expert on the Bible, you know I took some liberties on the verses. But, to me, the message is clear. Seek, and ye shall find. You may never totally understand God, but you’ll get a much better idea of His (or Her) Divine nature.

Amen.

Sermon 3: First, Do No Harm

It’s my understanding that the title of this sermon, “First, Do No Harm”, is the beginning of the Hippocratic Oath – the oath taken by all medical doctors before they’re allowed to begin ‘practicing’ medicine.

It’s hard to mention the ‘practice’ of medicine without commenting on that concept. Lawyers practice law and doctors practice medicine. I’m certainly glad that engineers don’t practice while designing buildings and highway overpasses. I’m also rather pleased that home builders ply their crafts rather than practicing them. It makes me wonder when doctors and lawyers will get serious and take the field for real. But that’s not what this sermon is about.

Anthony deMello, the late Jesuit priest from India, is one man I love to quote. One of his stories concerns a monkey who tried to save the fish from drowning. Come to think of it, that’s the entire story; a monkey tried to save the fish from drowning.

I’m also reminded of a song sung by Johnny Cash. The title of the song was, “You’re so heavenly minded, you’re no earthly good.”

And one more quote. This one comes from Ed, the harmonica player in our Nostalgia band. “The trouble with (fill in the name of any group) is they think they’re just as good as we are.”

The Bible says “Judge not lest you too be judged.” That’s one of the translations with which I have a problem. I don’t know anyone who does not judge. Some might call it discerning, but that’s just a fancy way of saying ‘judging’.

We judge when we turn on the television and decide that most of the network shows – especially the ‘reality’ programs – stink. That’s why we get cable or satellite and watch the history channel.

We judge when we go to a restaurant and order the foods we like and bypass the foods that, in the past, we judged to be something we wouldn’t feed to our worst enemy.

Enemies! We all have some of them to one degree or another. They could be murderous terrorists who are trying to kill our soldiers, or they could be the neighbor who sees no need to mow his lawn. We may not call him or her an enemy, but the relative or in-law who we avoid at family reunions cannot be listed as one of our favorite people.

And how did our favorite people come to be our favorites. We judged them. Pure and simply, we make all sorts of decisions every day based on our ability to judge. So, why does the Bible try to tell us not to do something that is part and parcel of being a human?

Let’s change the wording a bit. “Condemn not lest you too be condemned.” I see that as being very different. While not judging is basically impossible, not condemning is simply very difficult… for some people.

As I typed those last few words I realized the truth in that statement. I have run across many people who think nothing of condemning those with whom they disagree – and I find myself condemning them.

Some would be quick to point out that we should hate the sin, but love the sinner, but that’s just one more platitude that doesn’t hold much water. Most of us have a difficult time separating the sinner from his or her sin. But remember, sin, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Christians, like many other religious groups, like to consider themselves “Holier than thou.” Let’s face it; it doesn’t stop with religion. Democrats believe they are more intelligent than the average Republican and Republicans are stunned by the stupidity displayed by Democrats. Pittsburgh Steelers fans can’t understand how the people in Dallas can consider the Cowboys to be “America’s Team.” Classical music buffs believe that rap artists are a bunch of thugs who should be jailed.

When Jesus told us to love one another he obviously didn’t know we’d be living next door to a moron who uses his yard as a junk yard. Jesus had no way of knowing the idiot who bought the property next door to the million dollar lake home would build a half-million dollar log cabin.

Jesus just didn’t realize that we’d have to deal with people who did things differently than we would like… or did he? Exactly what did he mean when he told us to turn the other cheek?

In the context of the Gospel, we would turn the other cheek to allow someone to smite us a second time. But in today’s context, if we turn our head, it’s more difficult to see the behaviors we despise. Granted, we can’t also look the other way and ignore a behavior that is causing someone bodily harm. But we can walk away from a behavior that is doing nothing more than making our blood boil.

The monkey who tried to save the fish from drowning simply didn’t understand the situation. He knew he would be in trouble if he was under water for any length of time and assumed the fish would have the same problems. Had the monkey succeeded, the fish would have died. How many times do we humans jump into a situation we don’t understand and try to fix things? How many lives do we screw up through our own ignorance?

And the person who is so heavenly minded is not much better than the monkey. Assuming someone is doing wrong and stepping in to do something about it, is just as foolish as anything a monkey can do.

Ed’s quote basically sums up the problem. As long as we think we’re better than everyone else, we will do harm. Unintentional harm is no better than premeditated harm. The innocent person gets hurt regardless of our intentions.

The message of this sermon is to work at being a good person, accept people for what they are, and don’t try to change things simply because you don’t approve of them. Act like a doctor – First, Do No Harm!

Sermon 2: Membership

Some of you may remember a comedian named Groucho Marx. A story is told about a time when he was invited to join a very exclusive country club. His response was short and to the point. He said, “I don’t care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.”

Most of us become members of various groups during our lifetimes. We may have belonged to the boy or girl scouts when we were young, or maybe it was an athletic team in high school. Our high school had a large number of clubs that met once a week – the stamp club, chess club, Key club, chef’s club, and many others.

We may have belonged to fraternities or sororities while in college, as well as the many other clubs and societies where people with mutual interests could gather together and pursue their hobbies.

If we took a poll of the people who come to Christ the King, we’d find people who belong to service clubs such as the Lions, Kiwanis, and Rotary. We’d also find people who belong to country clubs, book clubs, writing groups, barbershop quartets, quilting clubs, bowling teams, softball teams, homeowners associations, and lots of other groups I don’t have time to mention.

Let’s face it – we are a species that thrive on socializing. We live in social groups; we work in social groups; we play in social groups; and we worship in social groups.

Most social groups have a number of things in common. First and foremost, they have some sort of initiation fee and monthly or annual dues. In the case of country clubs, they also have greens’ fees. Obviously churches rely on the contributions from their members, but I’ll leave that subject to the stewardship committee.

Most groups also have weekly, monthly, or annual meetings. Very often those meetings involve a meal and a boring guest speaker. Come to think of it, most sermons are followed by a meal. We’re all set – a boring speaker and a meal!

It’s interesting that most of us don’t see our membership in a church in the same light as we see our membership in various secular organizations. We join the book club, the quilting society, the Lions club, or the basketball team because we want to participate in something we thoroughly enjoy. We dive in with both feet and are quickly disappointed if we can’t be totally involved.

But church is different. For many of us, we are fulfilling an obligation passed down to us by our parents. When I was a child, the standing rule was that if I didn’t go to Sunday school, I wouldn’t be allowed to go out and play the rest of the day.

Many of us attend weekly services out of habit. We may enjoy the music, the sermon, and the opportunity to visit with a few people before heading for the parking lot, but our ‘membership’ ends shortly after whichever service we attend. Church is forgotten during the week. We have too many other things to think about – like rehearsal for the barbershop quartet, or reading the next chapter in preparation for the book club meeting.

The early Christians saw church very differently. We could probably liken it a modern political party or a group of environmentalists. The people who joined the Christian movement were fervently hoping for a better life; they knew their very existence depended on their ability to convince others to join their cause.

To them, church wasn’t just weekly meetings. It was a way of life. Some Christians lived in communal villages. Others would secretly meet with fellow Christians at every opportunity. Their entire lives centered on the ‘church’, which was the people with whom they shared a common belief in God.

While most church members today are of the weekly visitation variety, there are many who live in a fashion similar to the Christians of the first century. They spend much of the week thinking of the church. That’s because they spend many mornings, afternoons, and evenings at the church. They are the members of the various choirs, the Stephen Ministers, the active members of the women’s groups, the Bible study groups, the active members of the men’s club, the community outreach team, the altar guild, the readers, acolytes, worship assistants, grass mowers, landscapers, bulletin stuffers, and the many others who give of their time and talents as well as their treasures.

If you ask any of those volunteers why they do what they do, they’ll all tell you they get far more out of the church experience when they put more into it. These are also the people, who by and large, donate more money to the church. They have an insider’s appreciation for what it takes to run the church facility, and are usually more willing to give their fair share.

From that perspective, the church is pretty much like any other club or organization. The most active members are the ones who have the best understanding of the needs of the group. And their love of the group becomes a passion.

I invite all of you church members to take a giant step forward. Think of yourself as “disciples.” In truth, you have responsibilities far beyond weekly attendance. You should be supporting the group in every way you can. As far as evangelizing, if you act like Christians all during the week, you’ll become a walking Bible. You will then be able to preach the Gospel without saying a word.

With that thought, I think my weekly allotment of words has been used up. However, I do have one final thought, “I am thrilled to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.”

Amen.

Sermon Number 1: What (or Who) is the Church?

A Jesuit priest from India, Anthony deMello, once said, “The worst enemy of spirituality is organized religion.” So far in my life time, I’ve been a Presbyterian, a Roman Catholic, and an Evangelical Lutheran. From what I’ve seen, I’d say that deMello knew precisely what he was talking about.

I’ve seen churches totally controlled by the clergy and I’ve seen churches totally controlled by the church council. In both of those cases I’ve seen the controlling party do things that were totally un-Christian. And those in control were oblivious to the flaws of their actions.

The best situations I’ve witnessed occurred when there was a balance of power with a bit of underlying chaos. With no one in total control, the leaders could do nothing more than pray and rely on the Holy Spirit to help straighten out the mess.

The church I’m currently attending, Christ the King Lutheran Church in Cumming, Georgia is in a mild state of chaos right now. We’ve been that way for a number of years, but the chaos was intensified around February of 2007. That’s when Pastor Tom Smith retired. At the time we had an assistant Pastor named Robb Harrell, who, according to the rules of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, immediately submitted his resignation. The ELCA rules state that when the senior Pastor leaves for whatever reason, his or her assistants must also leave. We’re not allowed to promote from within… or so it would seem.

On the surface, the rule seems ludicrous, and our church council did what any self-serving outfit would do. It ignored the letter of resignation. However, on closer inspection, the rule does make sense.

Promoting an assistant would make life difficult for that person taking on the new title and responsibilities. He or she would forever be told that his or her actions were not the way good old Pastor whoever did things. The congregation would take a long time to move away from the way the old Pastor did things and accept the actions of the new Pastor. Furthermore, keeping the assistant would only work if the new senior Pastor felt comfortable working with that person. Otherwise, the assistant would eventually be asked to move on so the new senior Pastor could hire someone more compatible.

So, Pastor Robb began answering calls – that’s church talk for applying for other jobs. Within a few months, he moved on to a church south of Atlanta. So, Christ the King Lutheran Church in Cumming, Georgia no longer had a spiritual leader.

Or did we? First, we had Dick Gant, a retired Lutheran minister who helped out from time to time. He stepped in and offered some assistance. We also had Dwight Ogier, the husband of Babs. Babs is a member of our congregation. Dwight is an ordained minister for a different Protestant denomination. Dwight has also stepped in from time to time.

Then we have Pastor Dee Donnelly. Pastor Dee, a retired Lutheran Pastor, was assigned by the Synod to be our Interim Pastor. Little did she know how long an interim period could be!

In the meantime, a Call Committee was selected by the council and assigned the task of finding a new senior Pastor. Thus far, they have interviewed six candidates and gone off to six locations to listen to those candidates give sermons. Those six potential Pastors, in truth, represent two cycles of the process. After the first three were ‘processed’ a gentleman from Alabama was ‘called.’ At first he said, “Yes”, but a week later said, “No.” Thus, the Call Committee had to repeat the process. On the second go-round, a gentleman from South Carolina was given the nod. He wasted no time in saying, “No.”

It makes one wonder why they don’t like us. We have to remind ourselves that we’re not the only church looking for a Pastor. These men may well have received multiple offers. Why they rejected us in favor of another church is left to conjecture… unless someone contacts the candidates and gets a more complete explanation, we’ll never know for sure.

But, let’s take a closer look at our chaotic church. Since Pastor Tom left, we’ve trained and commissioned five new Stephen Ministers. Our Christian pre-school has filled all its openings and now has a waiting list. Our youth programs continue to improve their list of activities and now reach most of the children in our congregation – plus a few of their friends who come to join the various events.

Our Community Outreach program continues its involvement with the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, Habitat for Humanity, Hands Across Forsyth, and recently provided funding for the building of two homes in Nicaragua. Out softball team won almost half of its games this year; we expect out basketball team to do even better.

Our women continue to have spirit filled retreats and have recently made over a hundred quilts to be sent to needy families throughout the world. Our musical programs continue to grow and provide a variety of music at all three services which continue to have reasonable attendance – in fact, we continue to accept new members.

In short, our church continues to be active and vibrant. The laity continues to do what they’ve been doing since long before Pastor Tom came to be our spiritual leader. In other words, WE are the church. The members of Christ the King are what keeps the organization running smoothly – even with any surrounding chaos.

One has to wonder if this fact played a part in the decision of the two men who turned us down. If they were the kind of people who wanted to have total control and couldn’t see that happening with our congregation, we’re better off without them. On the other hand, if they saw that we didn’t need them as much as a congregation that was truly struggling without a good spiritual leader, then we should pray that they do well with the folks who really need them.

Right now, the members of our church are proving that a church is far more than the building used for worship. A church is the people who come together in the name of God. It’s people who enjoy each other’s company and are willing to roll up their sleeves to help one another and the people in the community who need a helping hand.

When you see a dozen people show up in the kitchen at 6:00 AM on Christmas morning to help cook turkeys for a community dinner of which none of them will partake, you see the Holy Spirit at work. No one is speaking in tongues – although some are a bit groggy and still half asleep – and no one is preaching from the scriptures. But there is no doubt that the people there are following Christ’s two basic commandments; love God and love one another.

That is spirituality. That is church.

And that’s the end of the first sermon I would give if they let me.

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