We are quickly heading into the season where we pause to be thankful and where for those of us who are Christians, we pause to celebrate the birth of Jesus. So in this season, it seems appropriate for me to post about a sermon I received months ago. And the first thing you should note are the terms, “months ago.”
There aren’t many sermons that I remember much beyond the drive home from church. While I find the vast majority of sermons inspiring and educational as I sit in the congregation, my retention of the primary message or the main point fades pretty quickly. It isn’t that the message isn’t important or delivered well, it is largely that as I exit the church, the noise of raising children, managing the household, and getting ready for the week of work and school ahead takes my full attention – except for a sermon I heard this summer.
I should say that I am a practicing Methodist, and my church is not one of fire and brimstone and it is not one where God is presented as punitive. Rather, my church presents God as loving and providing example by which we attempt to follow. And, He is presented as forgiving when we stray – and let’s face it; we all stray at some level or another.
My pastor is a good orator, interpreter, and a good deliverer of the message. She provides very clear messages absent of lofty language designed to show her mastery of scripture while losing those of us who are beginners or novices. She brings in real life examples using her own experiences and the experiences of other real and imperfect people. She doesn’t embellish to make the sermon longer or present way too many examples such that we get exhausted and miss the point. She is also a good leader by example. I see no judgment in her eyes, just compassion and a willingness to teach, patiently. And she talks about her calling to the ministry coming in college; however I sometimes wonder if it was bestowed at birth because her name is, “Joy.”
The message that morning was very simple. It was about being kind to others. It was in reference to the one of the most familiar lessons that Jesus provided us:
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (NIV, Mark 12:28-31).
So the message was simple, and the sermon was even more so. Pastor Joy walked into the congregation and asked (rhetorically), what if Jesus was here? What if he was seated right here in this sanctuary? How would you act?
And then she proceeded. What if Jesus spent the week with you? How would you act, and importantly, how would you act toward others? Would it be any different?
- How would you act toward your family the rest of today (Sunday) and on Monday morning as you get prepared for school and work?
- How would you act if He were your passenger as you drove to work? Would you tailgate? Would you honk? Would you gesture?
- How would you act as you interacted with your colleagues or friends if He were beside you in your meetings or gatherings or as you spoke on the telephone?
- And what would you do as you and He walked to lunch and you came upon a homeless man or someone else in need? Would you look away?
- And if He were shopping with you, would you rush to get to the front of the line, elbowing your way ahead of fellow shoppers? (I have to be honest – I added this since the Christmas shopping season is upon us!)
I believe that many of us in the congregation were cringing that day. I know I was. My first thought was, yikes, I don’t think I want Jesus with me on all those ventures since my behavior and my patience aren’t all that great. I’d be embarrassed if He were right beside me. Indeed, I would act and speak differently.
And then Pastor Joy from the center of the aisle seemed to speak directly to me and to each individual sitting in the pews that morning as she asked, “How do you know that Jesus isn’t right beside you right now, and how do you know that He won’t be beside you this week?”
The benediction followed and moments later we were walking out of the sanctuary. It was a pretty quiet exit that day. I think we were in thought, in reflection, and in shock. For as Christians, we have some sense that God and Jesus keep tabs on us, but for most of us, they are a bit distant. They feel a lot like our parents who have birthed us and reared us and for the most part, we obey our parents, but rarely do we let our parents see our most inappropriate behavior. If mom is along, I’m a bit more patient with my driving, my shopping, and my speech, because I want my mom to feel confident that she raised a pretty good kid, and I don’t want to see her look of disapproval. And indeed, she doesn’t get to see me much when I interact with colleagues and friends when my behavioral filters are off.
It struck me that day however, that while my mom doesn’t get to see me with filters off, that yup, Jesus does. And that is daunting and does inspire some behavioral modification. And the thought keeps coming back. And that is why one of Pastor Joy’s most basic sermons is what I label as the “Best Sermon.” It keeps coming back. It keeps having effect.
Now admittedly, I’m not well-behaved all the time, still not even the vast majority of the time. And at my age, I have doubt that I ever will be. But I have made improvements, and I believe God and Jesus know I am trying (and I’m thankful they are forgiving). I believe that they also know I’ll fall off the wagon often. But I believe they have given me Pastor Joy and many kind people around me and my own reflection to help me get back on and try again. It will be a continuing battle and a battle that I will fight now better-armed with my “Best Sermon.”