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 sermon time, we will be wasting our time. Sometimes I’ll get to the end of the sermon and have this bad feeling that I completely failed to get across the important things. It’s hard to go to the door after those sermons and make you file politely past me trying to find encouraging things to say. But invariably on those Sundays somebody will come through the line just beaming and will mention something that I said and tell me it made a big difference to them. On the other end of the spectrum, there have been days when I felt really good about the sermon only to have someone come out and say, “Are you okay today? You don’t seem too with it.” And so it goes.
For an introvert like myself, preaching is a weekly gut-wrenching exercise in revealing some aspect of who I am. I hate trying to tell someone beforehand what the sermon is going to be about, and I really didn’t like preaching them twice when we were having two services. For me, the task of preaching absolutely demands honesty from me, which leads to the weird situation of me frequently telling 300 people plus whoever watches online things that I would have a hard time telling one person in a conversation. If you had told me when I was a teenager that I would stand in a pulpit and do this a couple of thousand times, I think I would have asked you to just go ahead and shoot me.
The biggest single surprise for me in the ministry has been to come into the sanctuary week after week after week at West Avenue, at First Presbyterian, Dunn, and here at Central, and find people here. Occasionally someone will remark that the crowd was a little low at church this week, but I can never view things that way since I am amazed that anyone comes! There are lots of other things to do, churches to go to, preachers to listen to. Don’t hear me wrong. I know that the majority of good reasons to come to church on Sunday morning have absolutely nothing to do with me, and that is as it should be. But I hope you will allow me on this one occasion to say that your presence here – and there – is and has been the most wonderful affirmation for me that you believe God calls us into partnership to be a community of faith together. Thank you for that.
A number of years ago Jack McIntosh gave me a wonderful book entitled Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. It is about a third generation minister who, at 77, thinks he will die soon and is writing a journal for his young son. His old sermons are packed away in boxes in the attic and they dominate his thinking quite often. He counts up all the sermons he has preached and the number of pages in each one and realizes he has written as much as John Calvin and St. Augustine.
He writes in his diary, “It would be worth my life to get those big boxes down. It’s humiliating to have written as much as Augustine, and then have to find a way to dispose of it. There is not a word in any of those sermons I didn’t mean when I wrote it. If I had the time, I could read my way through 50 years of my innermost life. If I don’t burn them someone else will sometime, and that’s another humiliation.
“I suppose it’s natural to think about those old boxes of sermons upstairs. They are a record of my life, after all, a sort of foretaste of the Last Judgment, really, so how can I not be curious? Here I was a pastor of souls, hundreds and hundreds of them over all those years, and I hope I was speaking to them, not only to myself. So often I have known, right there in the pulpit, even as I read the words, how far they fell short of any hopes I had for them. And they were the major work of my life, from a certain point of view. I have to wonder how I have lived with that.” (Gilead, pp. 18-19, 40-41, 69)
Those words describe poignantly for me the relationship between a preacher and his or her sermons. They are extensions of ourselves, almost like children. And as such the sermons are as deeply flawed as we are, and we know that. We realize, when we are honest, that they should be burned when it’s all said and done, yet the producing of them is surrounded with an air of mystery and grace and even sacred space, not to mention figurative blood, sweat and tears. It is an amazing privilege in one’s job to study and pray over God’s Word at length and attempt to bring that word to others, and to have people show up to engage in that enterprise with you. My hope and prayer is that in the long run the sermons have brought hope and joy and good news to people, as well as a challenge to live the way God calls us to live through Jesus Christ.
When I entered Columbia Seminary in 1978 I had a pretty basic understanding of writing sermons being like teaching a class or writing a lecture or book report every week. But there was a brand new preaching professor named Tom Long who had just arrived from Erskine Seminary, and he was not going to let us go out into churches with that mindset. The first thing he did was have his preaching classes read a book by Frederick Buechner entitled Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. It approaches preaching as a creative, imaginative type of truth telling which is willing to live with ambiguity and unanswered questions rather than presuming to have all the answers. It acknowledges that there are times for grieving and times for uproarious laughter. This book, and Tom’s modeling of preaching, has greatly influenced my approach towards preaching, though I seldom if ever approach its vision. I want to close with a passage from the book which gives a powerful picture of what is going on when we gather here on Sunday mornings.
“The preacher pulls the little cord that turns on the lectern light and deals out his note cards like a riverboat gambler. The stakes have never been higher. Two minutes from now he may have lost his listeners completely to their own thoughts, but at this moment he has them in the palm of his hand. The silence in the shabby church is deafening because everybody is listening to it. Everybody is listening including even himself. Everybody knows the kind of things he has told them before and not told them, but who knows what this time, out of the silence, he will tell them? Let him tell them the truth… Let him use words, but in addition to using them to explain, expound, exhort, let him use them to evoke, to set us dreaming as well as thinking, to use words as at their most prophetic and truthful, the prophets used them to stir in us memories and longings and intuitions that we starve for without knowing that we starve. Let him use words which do not only try to give answers to the questions that we ask or ought to ask but which help us to hear the questions that we do not have words for asking and to hear the silence that those questions rise out of and the silence that is the answer to those questions. Drawing on nothing fancier than the poetry of his own life, let the preacher use words and images that help make the surface of our lives transparent to the truth that lies deep within them, which is the wordless truth of who we are and who God is and the Gospel of our meeting.” (Telling the Truth, pp. 23-24)
And so I am thankful for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. I pray that God who began a good work within you will bring it to completion in the day of Christ. And I pray that you will continue to open your ears and hearts to those who will stand here in the future attempting to the best of their ability to tell the truth.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
June 27, 2021
Central Presbyterian Church