21 September 2014

Having Something to Say

Psalm 130 & 1 Corinthians 2:1-16

21st September 2014

In his letter to the Christians in Corinth Paul wrote, the “message about the cross” is “the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).  In other words, the cross is forever “preaching,” that is, proclaiming something. The cross has a message, a story for us, for the world. Paul, summoned by the Holy Spirit to serve that message, saw himself as a proclaimer, a preacher, a prophet. “My speech and my proclamation,” Paul explained, “were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God” (1 Cor. 2: 4-5). “And we speak of this things,” Paul said, these divine things, “in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual” (1 Cor. 2:13). And so Paul was called to speak a word. As is true for all preachers, his words carried and contained another word, a different word. Not the Bible, but the Word, the Word heard within the words of scripture, the Message of God that can’t be confined by any text.  And so Paul became a preacher.

You might wonder, as I did as boy, how a preacher comes up with something to say week after week after week.  How does a preacher come up with all those words? It was an important question for me to answer. 

Twenty-four years ago, on 23rd September, I was ordained by Newark Presbytery at the First Presbyterian Church of North Arlington, New Jersey.  On that Sunday evening in 1990 I answered the ordination questions, several feet from the font where I was baptized in 1964, and then knelt for the laying on of hands.  How I got to that moment, how I continue to live from that moment, has something to do with the question, how does a preacher come up with all those words? How does one become a preacher?

When people ask me—Why did you become a minister? —I get a little anxious. Not because I’m reluctant to share my story, but because, like most things in life and most things pertaining to the Holy Spirit, it’s complicated. The last time I shared my story here at CPC was back in October 1999, right after I arrived from New Jersey. So here’s my call story. It’s not a reflection on how my theology has changed in the past twenty-four years or what I’ve discovered about the Church or myself or of God, and not what I sense God calling me toward these days. These I’ll leave for another time.  Here’s how I felt called to preach. 

I was born and raised in the Presbyterian Church.  My father, Edward, although a Protestant (his father’s family were part the Reformed Church in Hungary), rarely went to church.  My mother, Grace, on the other hand, taught Sunday school for more than forty years at First Church, North Arlington.  When she died in 1992 we calculated that she taught thousands over the years.  She was my teacher, twice. I had perfect attendance and still have the awards to prove it. My maternal grandmother was an active member of that church, as were her parents.  They arrived in Kearny and North Arlington from Dundee, Scotland, in the early 1900s. Kearny was a point of entry for thousands of Scots to the United States. Many were Presbyterian.

I loved going to church as a boy. I had a lot of friends.  I loved my teachers. I have wonderful memories. I can remember the smell of paste and glue in the Sunday school rooms, the taste of juice and cookies we enjoyed after class each week, the smell of grape juice and bread on the mornings we celebrated the Lord’s Supper, it filled the whole sanctuary.  Have you ever noticed that wonderful smell in our sanctuary on morning when Communion is served?  Every June we had our Children’s Day service and I was often asked to read scripture or offer a prayer or a given a message. There were several older women in the church, many with Scots accents, who used to say to me after these services, “Kenny, you’re going to be a minister someday! You’re going to be a minister!”  I smiled politely but said to myself, “Never. I’m going to be a history teacher.”

One Communion Sunday I remember being in worship and watching the minister—the Rev. Dr. Henry C. Kreutzer, the minister who baptized me—standing behind the Communion Table wearing his black Geneva robe and white preaching tabs and saying, “People will come from south and north, east and west to sit at table in the Kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29).  I was so awed by what he said!  What’s so special about a loaf and a cup that people would travel far and wide to receive it? What was taking place there? Where is this Kingdom of God?

It was around age eleven or twelve that I started playing with the idea—or, more correctly, the idea started playing with me—that maybe I would become a minister.  But there was one major problem:  I could never figure out how a minister came up with so much to say Sunday after Sunday.  I didn’t like to write and I couldn’t imagine myself preparing a sermon every week. The thought was agony. What should I do?

We had marvelous youth leaders at my church.  They were field education students from Princeton Theological Seminary and they left quite an impression on me. Our seminarians often brought us down to the seminary and I fell in love with the place. (Actually, I wanted to go to Princeton Seminary before I felt called to the ministry. I know. I was an odd child.)  One Saturday in Princeton I visited the University Store, which used to be on University Place, and remember buying a brown, spiral-bound notebook, which read “Princeton” on the cover.[1] It was 1979.  If I’m going to be a minister, I thought, I better figure out how to write a sermon.  This notebook would contain my first sermons.  So, after school I went home, looked through my Bible, chose a passage of scripture, took out my notebook, and began to write a sermon.  Now, of course, I didn’t know how to write a sermon!  So I set out to write a sermon a day!  (This was just lunacy.)  After several tries I gave up.  It was impossible, I thought.  Too difficult.  I had nothing to say.  So I gave up the idea of being a minister.

Several years later, when I arrived at Rutgers College, something started to stir within me again. Freshmen year was a challenge.  I registered for several history classes and an Introduction to Old Testament class—I went to Sunday School, knew my Bible, that would be my “gut class,” my easy A.  Well, that class just about killed me.  It devastated me.  It shattered my world.  It shook me to the core.  I went into a deep crisis of faith. I almost became an atheist. I didn’t realize that I was a literalist when it came to reading the Bible.  I learned in class that scholars—back in the early nineteenth century—argued that Moses did not write the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible).  Moses could not have written these books because Deuteronomy contains an account of his death!  (See Deuteronomy 34:1-8.)  Not one, but four authors were involved in its formation, written over centuries.[2]  I thought, “If I can’t take this part of the Bible at its word, what about the rest of the Bible?  Can it be trusted?  Maybe I’m just fooling myself about this faith stuff.”  I got an A in the class and so in the spring I took Introduction to New Testament.  That class challenged me too, but then I got another A.  I started to like my religion classes. 

Then I took what I thought was a very radical class, “Religion and Politics,” taught by Dr. Hiroshi Obayashi.  I didn’t think religion had anything to do with politics.  I was obviously very naïve.  We read a lot of Karl Marx (1818-1883).  Obayashi changed my life when one day he asked, “How about taking the theology class next semester?” It was the highest-level course offered by the religion department.  I was a sophomore.  I was flattered, registered for the class, but, to be honest, I didn’t even know what theology was!  That class changed my life.  I became enthralled by the way ideas can change and transform our lives and I discovered the sheer joy that comes with serious, honest, thoughtful discussions about God.  I had to read a book written by the Swiss Reformed minister Karl Barth (1886-1968), The Word of God and the Word of Man (1928).  That book made my brain hurt—but it taught me how to think theologically. 

It was around that time that I started to read the sermons of the German theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965). Tillich served in the trenches of the First World War and later become one of the great theologians of the twentieth century.  His sermons were so existential and honest and real, intellectual, they wrestled with difficult questions of life and death and meaning, ultimate things, all of which spoke to me at a very deep level—depths I didn’t even know were there. 

And then, one evening, as I was reading one of Tillich’s sermons, “The Shaking of the Foundations,” based on a text from Jeremiah that speaks to the role of the prophet/preacher—I’ll never forget that moment—I felt something give way in me.  By the time I finished reading the sermon I wanted to preach.

Why? Because I felt deep within me, for the first time, that I had something to say, that there was something that needed to be said, to be shared, and, greater still, there was something that I had to say.  I was compelled.  I didn’t have a choice.  There was this burden, this weight of responsibility within me. I had a desire to talk about God and about what God has done and is doing through Christ.  This was not a desire to say something about me, what I’ve done or experienced.  It had something to do with me, of course, it was my experience, but it had more to do with God.  What I sensed emerging within me was a voice—a voice that was mine and yet not mine. It was then that I realized I had something to say.  And I was beginning to sense how a minister came up with all those words week after week. 

It was around this time that the minister at my home church—the Rev. Daniel J. Weitner—invited me to preach on Reformation Sunday. This both frightened and excited me at the same time.  I worked on that first “real” sermon for weeks. I poured my heart into it and gave it the title “To Understand.”[3]  

I eventually graduated from Rutgers with a double major in history and religion—from Rutgers, an extremely liberal, secular school.  I’m grateful for the faith-challenges I experienced in such a context.  I left Rutgers with my mind and my heart on fire, with a definite call to preach.  Then the journey continued—after one semester at Yale Divinity School I transferred to Princeton Seminary, as a seminarian I served several churches in Connecticut and New Jersey, received a fellowship at graduation from Princeton that took me to Scotland, ordained to serve St. Leonard’s Parish Church in St. Andrews, as an assistant minister, studied at the University of St. Andrews, came back to the United States in 1991, I served seven years at the First Presbyterian “Hilltop” Church in Mendham, NJ, called to Catonsville in 1999, and eventually finished my PhD in 2002.  The journey continues.

Since that time back at Rutgers my voice has become stronger, more confident to say what I alone can’t say, yet must say.  This is why preaching might be called, to borrow from Barth, “the impossible possibility.” The voice is mine and yet it’s not mine. The message comes through me and picks up some of my “me-ness,” but it’s not mine.  It doesn’t belong to me, yet it comes through me.  We have this ministry “in clay jars,” as Paul said, “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Cor. 4:7).  As Tillich said of the prophet, “No true prophet has ever prophesied voluntarily,” that is, preached voluntarily.  “It has been forced upon him by a Divine Voice to which he has not been able to close his ears.”[4]  There are times when I feel called to preach a sermon that I don’t necessarily want to preach, but must. Every pastor struggles with this tension. Every pastor knows what’s going to ruffle the feathers of a congregation, she knows someone is going to get ticked off about something; he knows there will be resistance and pushback. That’s what the gospel does.  Preachers are not called to say what the church wants to hear, but what we sense, by grace, the church needs to hear.  As the old saying goes, the role of the preacher is “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Over the years I’ve learned two things. 

First, when we’re dealing with God, never say never. 

And, second, I now know how a minister comes up with all those words.

Truth is:  It’s a bottomless well. And the Spirit, who searches the depths of God, searches us and shows us what needs to be said.  For, “the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God” (1 Cor. 1:11).  To be honest, there is so much that needs to be said.  There is no way to exhaust the message of the Divine Voice. There isn’t enough time to say all that needs to be said.  This is true for all of us.  The Spirit shows all of us what needs to be said.

You, too, have a voice.  You have something to say.  This morning during adult education we heard from our youth that participated in the Youth Service Opportunities Project in New York City in June.  They closed their presentation with a group photo standing in front of a large poster with these words printed on it, words from the Quaker George Fox (1624-1691).  It read:  LET YOUR LIVES SPEAK!

Knowing that we have something to say is critically important because there are things only you can say, good news that only you can share, good news the world is literally dying to hear.  There are people out there waiting to hear a word from the Lord—and you have no right to withhold it from them.  There are people waiting to hear what only you can tell them about God’s love and grace.  They need to hear it and they need to see it, in you and me, from within your experience of God’s love. 

For “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” (2 Cor. 5:19) as Paul said. Surely of the most sublime verses of scripture and one of my favorite texts.

God comes in Christ with love, forgiveness and grace.
God comes in Christ to transform our lives with a New Creation.
God comes in Christ to reconcile and to heal our lives,
                        our families,
                        our relationships,
                        our communities.
God comes in Christ to liberate us and set us free.
That, my friends, is the good news. 
That, my friends—that’ll preach.

[1] Princeton TheologicalSeminary and Princeton University are separate institutions, although historically related. Princeton University, originally called The College of New Jersey, was charted in 1746 by Presbyterians to educate ministers, but later expanded its mission beyond training clergy.   Princeton Seminary was founded in 1812 by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church to educate and train ministers to serve the expanding western frontier of the new nation. Today, there is a strong bond between the two institutions. The Seminary commencement services are held at the University Chapel.
[2] The four "authors" or traditions are known as J (Yahwist), E (Elohist), P (Priestly), and D (Deuteronomist).
[3] The sermon was heavily influenced by my reading of Barth’s The Word of God and the Word of Man (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1978).
[4] From Paul Tillich’s sermon “The Shaking of the Foundations” in The Shaking of the Foundations (New York: Charles Scribner’s and Sons, 1948), 8.

1 comment:

lazarus said...

Thank you for this very personal post.

It has to be personal, doesn't it. After all, coming to know the unique way in which Christ Jesus seeks to speak through each of us is, perhaps, one of the greatest learnings.

"Knowing that we have something to say is critically important because there are things only you can say, good news that only you can share."

"There are people waiting to hear what only you can tell them about God’s love and grace. They need to hear it and they need to see it, in you and me, from within your experience of God’s love."