I Timothy 4:11 - 16 & II Timothy 4:1 - 5
On July 4, 1982 I preached my first sermon as the pastor of the West Avenue Presbyterian Church in Gastonia, N.C., entitled “New Beginnings.” Today, 39 years’ worth of Sundays later, I’m preaching my last sermon as the pastor of this congregation. I certainly don’t anticipate this being my last sermon, just the last sermon as the installed pastor of a church.
We have some wonderful friends with us today who were with us from the very beginning in Gastonia. Mike and Judy Daniels were already there before us, along with their twin sons Ben and Jay. Jim and Linda Ratchford joined the church the same day Claire did and their girls, Katie and Hanna, were baptized at near intervals with Erin and Allison. Other wonderful friends from Dunn, NC had planned to come today but learned that a family wedding was scheduled for today rather than yesterday. And I am surrounded by wonderful friends from here at Central Presbyterian Church.
It is hard for me to feel anything today but an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I’m thankful to God for having given me good health with which to serve. I’m thankful to God for giving me gifts of perseverance and courage to step into the pulpit even on Sundays when I didn’t really want to go there because I didn’t feel worthy or didn’t feel I had prepared well or I knew some of the congregation was not going to like what I had to say. I am thankful to God for placing me in congregations with lots of people with open minds, good senses of humor, and forgiving hearts. Otherwise, I might have become just one more in the multitude of ministers who have left pastoral ministry.
Preaching is not the only task of ministry, though it is certainly the most visible. There are plenty of jokes about preachers only working one hour a week, and Linda’s mom famously asked her years ago what my real job was. The right to be heard on Sunday mornings rests on two foundations which must be tirelessly built. One is relationships of trust with people built by being a faithful pastor and friend; and the other is time spent wrestling with Scripture and prayerfully seeking to discern God’s message for us today. Though it is not the only task of ministry, I’d like to talk primarily about preaching this morning in the hope that it will reinforce for you the value of it.
When megachurches emerged with big screens and rock bands and theater seating, I confessed to you that I am a dinosaur and not made for that. I hoped that there would continue to be people for whom a more traditional style of worship would be appealing, and I have been rewarded more than amply with that, with people from all generations.
The craft used in writing and preaching a sermon is seldom used any more, sadly even by preachers. Listen to the way Barbara Brown Taylor described it in the pre-megachurch era. She writes, “No other modern public speaker does what the preacher tries to do. The trial attorney has glossy photographs and bagged evidence to hand around; the teacher has blackboards and overhead projectors; the politician has brass bands and media consultants. All the preacher has is words. Climbing into the pulpit without props or sound effects, the preacher speaks – for ten or twenty or thirty minutes – to people who are used to being communicated with in very different ways. Most of the messages in our culture are sent and received in thirty seconds or less and no image on a television screen lasts more than twenty, yet a sermon requires sustained and focused attention. If the topic is not appealing, there are no other channels to be tried. If a phrase is missed, there is no replay button to be pressed. The sermon counts on listeners who will stay tuned to a message that takes time to introduce, develop, and bring to a conclusion. Listeners, for their part, count on a sermon that will not waste the time they give to it. The sermon, then, proves to be a communal act, not the creation of one person but the creation of a body of people for whom and to whom one of them speaks. A congregation can make or break a sermon by the quality of their response to it.” (The Preaching Life, pp. 76-77)
If that sounds a bit mystical, that’s the way it should sound. If the Holy Spirit is not at work during s