Some of our pastors will be moving to new churches in a few weeks. Later this year Westminster John Knox Press will publish a collection of my sermons over the past forty years. Pouring through my old sermons has been a fun, humbling experience. I found the very first sermon that I preached at my very first church, Trinity, North Myrtle Beach, S.C. My father-in-law, Carl Parker had given birth to Trinity the year I was born, but the congregation had never thrived. So I went there in fear and trepidation, as witnessed in this first sermon. Trinity turned out to be a wonderful place to begin my ministry, a congregation whose rebirth validated the importance of faithful preaching as the key to congregational renewal.
1 Corinthians 1:26-2:5
March 3, 1974
Trinity United Methodist Church
North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
A first sermon is much like a first date - I want to do well, put my best foot forward, not say anything too dumb that might render impossible a future relationship, impress you, reassure you that the Bishop made a wise decision in sending me to Trinity.
To continue the dating analogy, my anxiety is much like that of a "blind date." I don't know you and you don't know me. You have heard about me, but only through the advance information from the District Superintendent, and you know that District Superintendents are sometimes not to be trusted.
So here I am -wanting to appear wise - but not overly wise, not offensively wise like William Buckley. I want to entertain, to engage you, but not to appear trite or comical. I'm thinking now, "I wonder what they expect of me? What would they like to hear?"
And there you are - wanting to appear likeable, congenial, a nice group of people with whom any preacher would love to live, wanting to impress me that the Bishop is really impressed by you and looking out for you when he sent me to you.
And here I am thinking....there are lots of empty pews out there; am I equal to the task? I wonder why they pay so little of their fair share of mission giving? Why did Peggy have such a pained look on her face when I mentioned finances to her. How come Joan said to me, after handing me a lemon pie, "Well, you really have got your work cut out for you, preacher"?
The District Superintendent told me that this church had lots of "potential," but I don't trust D.S.'s anymore than you do!
And there you are thinking....he looks young, too young. Some are thinking....he looks old, or if not old, at least short. He can't play softball, I can tell that by looking at his arms. Oh well, maybe we can use him, second string, right field. I wonder why he really left his last appointment? How long will the "honeymoon last"?
Will there be a honeymoon?
I'm sure that George Baker told you that I had a good reputation, even though I've only been a pastor for a couple of years. But then George told me the story of the preacher who left a congregation. It was his last Sunday. End of the service the preacher is standing at the door. One woman was overcome with weeping and emotion. The preacher, touched by her grief attempted to reassure her with, "Oh Sister, don't weep. Even if I'm leaving I know that the bishop will send you a wonderful preacher."
She replied through tears, "That's what they've been telling this church for twenty years and it ain't happened yet!"
Here I am and there you are and you are wondering - will he take time for me? Will he listen to my story? Will be care that I've got problems? And will his ministry be adequate to meet my needs?
And here I am wondering - will I have time for all of them? Will they take time to know me as a person, or will they only know me as "The Preacher"? Will my talents be adequate to their need?
In other words, here I am - wondering, if I'm honest "are they good enough, kind enough, enlightened enough for me?" Will they receive my offbeat way with sermons? Will they pay me enough so that next year I can go to Annual Conference and look good enough to all my fellow preachers so I can say, "Look how I turned around things at Trinity?"
And there you are wondering - can he fix my marriage? Can he make my children behave? Can he keep me interested on a Sunday in a sermon? Can he attract more young couples to our church? Will he embarrass us in town?
For you and for me the first sermon is like a first date; we're both putting each other on trial.
Knowing all this, I tossed and turned in preparing my first sermon, wondering what I should say and how I should say it to you.
"Preach that one on redemption that worked so well at Broad Street. You really wowed them with that one."
Too heavy. Don't want them to think they've got an egghead for a preacher.
"Use some football analogy; can't go wrong by mentioning sports. They all love football."
Better stay out of controversial matters - don't know whether they tend to be for Clemson or for Carolina.
And so it continued, rummaging about in my old files, frantically searching for something impressive enough, entertaining enough, yet spiritual and humble enough, inspirational too - and do it all in about twenty minutes in my first sermon!
Then, as so often happens, I managed to get some good advice from an older, wiser friend of mine, a tired old preacher who has served (and even survived!) some of the toughest, meanest, hard-to-please congregations that ever were - Brother Paul.
In reminiscing about his preaching at First Church Corinth - a difficult appointment if ever there were one - Paul said:
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters, not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus who became the wisdom of God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption in order that, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord."
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not be in human wisdom but in the power of God.
Saint Paul says to his first church: there you are, not wise by the world's standards of wisdom, not the brightest candles in the box, not by a long shot. No Ph.D's among you. Few of you rich, few prestigious. Not much ground for boasting among you.
And here I am, Paul: no silver-tongued orator here. Just a poor, often inadequate, sometimes disconnected, often boring, poor Bible-quoting preacher. No charismatic, good-looking TV Oral Roberts. Just a plain speaker of the plain, unadorned Good News.
Not that wise a congregation, not that wise a preacher, says Paul. Just you, just me, just the gospel.
Paul's sermonic strategies are interesting in that they don't try to be interesting. "I decided to know nothing among you - no six steps to salvation, no sure fire way to riches and happiness, no smooth, religious-sounding big words - I was determined to know nothing but the gospel. That's the only good reason for you, or for me, to be here. The church isn't about me and it's not about you. It's the wisdom and power of God. It's about the gospel.
That's a tough gospel truth. It's so easy to get confused that we could really have a great church - if we could find just the right pastor who, along with being good with older folks and youth, also visits everybody all the time, prepares profound and moving sermons, and walks on water to boot! Or we could have a really great church if we could weed out all the half-way committed people and get this down to the really, really serious Christians.
But Paul says that's not the way Christ works. Christ works by taking a group of people - not many all that wise, none too powerful and competent, not many rich - and uses them to show what a great, wise, powerful, competent God can do.
In my better moments I know: any good that I'm able to work here is that good that only God can do. God is going to have to work through frail, all-too-human, flawed people like you, like me, or no real good will get done.
I was asking one of you last week (I'm not going to tell you who it was but I bet you can guess), asking, "What do you love most about Trinity Church?" And you responded, "I love that God really is here. When I think of the sorry preaching we have endured over the past years I think it's a miracle that we are still here! With the sorry preachers we've had it's a testimony to the power of God that there is a Trinity Methodist Church!"
Can you guess who said that to me? And you know: he was absolutely right. Maybe not right about preachers but right about God. That there is a church here, that people like us are being saved, being used by God to take over the world for the kingdom of God. It's "a miracle."
So here I am wanting to come up with something brilliant for you and there you are wanting to be brilliant for me and Paul tells all of us: It's not about brilliant people; it's about a God who loves to create something out of nothing.
I confess I'd rather trust what wisdom I've got than to risk trusting the goodness of God to create a world out of chaos (Genesis 1), to raise the dead back to live (Luke 24), and to make the People of God out of those who were once nobodies and strangers (Trinity United Methodist Church).
There I am and there you are. Despite our weaknesses and inadequacies a loving, resourceful God is stupefying the world, using what the world regards as low, foolish and dumb to make something wonderful. We've only been in town a week now and yet already we have been amazed and what God is doing through you at Trinity Church. A Baptist mechanic was testifying to what a good church I was getting just this past Wednesday.
I'm not the greatest preacher in the world and you're not the greatest church in the world but that's OK because the greatest God in the world is surprising the world with God's ability to create something out of nothing, right here in this congregation. So on this our first Sunday together pray for me that I would, week-after-week keep real clear about why we're here, that I would look to Jesus and not to myself to make this a faithful church. Pray that on my last day here, when I'm preaching my very last sermon to you, I'll be able to say, "When I came to Trinity Church, I didn't come preaching lofty words of wisdom, fancy spiritual stuff and highfalutin theology. I preached Jesus Christ and him crucified. I preached the simple, unadorned Good News that God is saving the world through us. My only boast is the wisdom and power of God."
There you are and here I am with nothing to bring us together, and no hope in life or in death, no chance of ever being the Body of Christ - nothing except Christ, the wisdom and power of God.
Frankly, I can't wait to discover just how great and wise a God we've got. Let's go!
[Taken with permission from "A Message from Bishop Will Willimon," May 10, 2010. North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church.]