Sermon Series: Perfect Peace

If you think you want to preach, feel free to work with any or all of these concepts at any time:

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1. “How can we sing at a time like this?” Psalm 137:1-4. 1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. 2 There on the poplars we hung our harps, 3 for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 4 How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?

2. “How can you eat at a time like this?” Ezekiel 2:7-8.  7 You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious. 8 But you, son of man, listen to what I say to you. Do not rebel like that rebellious people; open your mouth and eat what I give you.”

3. “How can you sleep at a time like this?” Matthew 8:23-27. Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. 24 Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. 25 The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” 26 He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. 27 The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”

4. Why aren’t you worried?” Acts 28:1-6. Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. 2 The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. 3 Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. 4 When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” 5 But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. 6 The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.

 

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My Call to Preach

I was born to preach the Gospel; to show other people that we are all loving brothers and sisters with unlimited potential in God. Sounds easy enough, satisfying enough; but for whatever reason people have doubted my call from my first acceptance of it up until today. Just a bit of what I’ve heard in the last 12 years from family and church folks:

“You can’t preach. You haven’t been through anything, you got no story. What are you going to preach about? How your daddy bought you a new car while you were getting Cs in college? God is good!”

“You like Buddhism and all that other stuff. I seriously question your commitment to Christ.”

“I knew a pastor who accepted the gays–turns out he was gay. Are you gay? No? Hey, just asking, heh heh. You did go to Morehouse.”

“I can’t imagine you preaching. You’d make a good surgeon though, have you thought about that?”

“Everyone knows Freemasons worship the devil.”

“I saw some of the stuff on your blog, and frankly it concerns me.”

And my all-time favorite:

“You ain’t no preacher! Every black man who doesn’t have a job thinks he’s a preacher!”

With church, family, and friends like that, who needs enemies?

I’d like to think I didn’t ask for this. I remember being 5 and meeting a Franciscan friar in his brown robe. I understood that he worked for God, and that had to be a good way to go. He seemed peaceful, but I knew even then I could never be a monk, no matter how cool they sometimes make it look.

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I was baptized at the age of six– Baptist born, Baptist bred. I could recite scriptures, I could pray publicly -seemed like we all could. When I was 8 there was this high school boy at our church. One day, the pastor announced that the young man was going to be a preacher. The congregation was so proud. The pastor handed him a stack of books and he nearly folded under the weight of them, all to big laughs and applause. “Kind of presumptuous, isn’t he?” My young mind concluded. “How could anyone–especially a kid, really claim to hear from and speak for God? I’ve never heard from God. Kind of cool that he gets to sit next to the pastor though…Just holding all those books makes him look smart….I wonder if he’ll really read them and how long it will take….”

Church was a big part of my life growing up. Choir rehearsal, youth group, Sunday mornings: church was probably my main extracurricular activity through high school, though there were others.

By college I’d developed a resentment for the Bible and church. Oh I attended regularly freshman year–seemed like a good thing to do far from home, it felt familiar, if not completely essential at the time. When I came home from my first year of college, my parents insisted I get a job. I saw an ad: “$400 a week guaranteed.” Not bad for the 1990s with no college degree. Turns out it was selling Kirby Vacuum Cleaners–they cost about $1500 back then. Sales. I learned a lot of the secrets to sales success that summer. Think Zig Ziglar and Dale Carnegie. If you don’t know who they are, just think of achieving everything you want out of life while maintaining your integrity. Sales gets a bad rap as being an industry full of scheisters.

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But the principles Zig was teaching made a lot of sense against in light of all the Scripture put in my head growing up.

“A positive attitude, may not get you everything, but it will always get you more than a negative one.”

“Smiles are contagious.”

“You’re the only thing blocking your success.”

“The harder you work, the luckier you get.”

“Everyone takes you more seriously when you wear a tie, even you.”

“We’re not here to make a lot of money, we’re here to help people…help people and you can make a lot of money.”

Sales has everything to do with faith. I learned how to visualize success–how to turn nothing into something. I had reasonable success as a Kirby dealer; some of the people in the office saw my knack for it and told me I was a fool for going back to college. Stick with them and I could be a millionaire in 10 years. My boss was 27 and making six figures. 

I came back to school truly inspired to succeed. I set some goals, and my grades shot all the way up. One class in particular really shaped my belief system. Theories of Personality with Allen Carter. Every class, he strutted in to the room and wrote on the board: “WHAT IS THE BASIS OF YOUR IDENTITY?” He  used to spend entire class sessions not dealing with the syllabus material, but ranting about how life is just a game we play;  how fear, anger, and guilt control us; how there’s a difference between what is and our view of what is; he talked a lot about “Rev. Jebedizah,” his representation of the hypocritical church. Here’s what got me on the first day when one poor student told him the basis of his identity was being a Christian: “All of you following Rev. Jebedizah, telling you that if you don’t follow God’s rules, God will send you to hell. F@#k God if God hates me enough to send me to hell.”

F@#k God?! I really did back away from him out of fear he’d be struck down. I always thought he was bitter about something that happened to him at church in his youth. He turned us on to The Celestine Prophecy and A Course in Miracles. Here’s this psychotherapist, he helps people, his philosophy was unconditional love–why such a chip on his shoulder about religion? When I told my mom about the mind-blowing class, she brushed it off: “Psychologists are all crazy.”

I started hanging out with the young preachers on campus. There are always a few dozen aspiring clergypeople at Morehouse and Spelman. We didn’t all automatically get along, but there was a community. I liked to talk theology with them, but I didn’t consider myself “one of those guys who wants to be a preacher or pastor.” Silly looking back on it, thinking I could play with fire but not get burned.

Finished undergrad and when I walked across the stage, I had no idea what was next. Right around that time, a lot of strangers and friends began making references to me being a minister. Sometimes as a joke, sometimes by “mistake”–one time a pastor I’d never met started prophesying over me in a grocery store: “you’re a powerful Gospel preacher and you don’t even know it!”

One night that summer, I was alone reading “As a Man Thinketh” by James Allen. It was an old, tattered copy that belonged to my childhood pastor. His widow gave it to me, and I still cherish it. Anyway, I was up reading it, and it felt like the spirit of that pastor (he’d been dead 10 years) came into the room. It told me “preach.”

I said “OK.”

Fast forward one year. I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer in Haiti. I knew the preaching thing was somewhere deep down, but I was 23, single, not so hard on the eyes, and the volunteer culture was like a perpetual Spring Break in the Caribbean. In the midst of those hedonistic Peace Corps days,  I started attending a Pentecostal church. I was drawn in by the electric guitar–you could hear it way down the street. I used to sit in the back, but they seemed fascinated by the black American, and maybe I enjoyed the attention. Soon enough they asked me to sit up on the rostrum. “But I’m not a preacher or anything.” Oh, just come on. I guessed it was because I was American–like a dignitary or something, not realizing they saw something and I was the last to know.

Then the pastor and 3 or 4 other ministers at the church in Haiti invited me to a meeting. They had a copy of “The Prayer of Jabez,” a very powerful short Christian book, but their copy was in English. Could I tell them what it says in Haitian? No problem. About two chapters in to interpreting the words of the book into Haitian, all the ministers remarked: wow, this is deep. You should preach at our church sometime! “No, I’m just reading the words out of the book. It’s Bruce Wilkinson who’s deep.” Another chapter: man, this is great–you’re really going to have to preach for us one day. “I’m just translating. I can’t preach, really.” Another chapter: Man, this is good stuff. We’ve decided you’re going to preach on the 4th Sunday in January.

“OK.”

That first sermon was on a Sunday night. I prepared like a mad man for weeks. When the time came, I mounted the pulpit with a French Bible, a Haitian Bible, an English Bible, and several pages of notes spread across the podium. I was too nervous to focus on any of it other than some of the notes. The congregation saw this American up there with all these books and I think they were expecting something special to happen. I didn’t die; but it wasn’t much more special than that. L’Eglise Du Dieu Vivant (Church of the Living God) graciously let me preach a couple times a month over the next year and a half. They had 5 or 6 services a week to fill, so me being a willing and modestly able preacher was a win-win.

That was around the same time I decided to apply to seminary. Even though I loved preaching by then, I somehow still told myself I didn’t want to be a pastor. Harvard Divinity School sent me a beautiful rejection letter. (Did I mention the Cs in college?) I somehow got in to Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, the oldest independent seminary in the nation–great school, great reputation, top-notch faculty. Why did they take me? They seemed very impressed with my Peace Corps service. Also, they were in serious financial trouble at the time, and I’m pretty sure they accepted everyone with a pulse that year to get their numbers up. God was in the mix and it was meant to be.

There are several highlights from my time at Union: There were the theological crises: times when my intellectual doubt far outstripped my faith, only for my faith to grow back stronger than before. There were the study trips to Brazil and Bolivia; all the great books; my 3 year stand up comedy career; Shiloh Baptist Church in Harlem where Pastor Calvin Sampson taught me about combining “the learning and the burning”; best of all, I met Isis at Union. She just kind of fell in my lap one day, lucky duck that I am. We met on my parents 35th wedding anniversary and got married less than a year later.

Shiloh Baptist was good to me for a while. Rev. Sampson let me preach my trial sermon May 30, 2004. I came from Ephesians 2:14, preaching about how Christ has destroyed the barriers of hostility between us; he has made the two one. Home run!

That was some years ago, and my call is still evolving. “Think And Grow Rich” (a very spiritual book) says we have to identify our definite chief aim in life. Mine is “to show each other our loving and limitless nature.” I haven’t always lived up to that, but that’s my calling. I love preaching and teaching Jesus Christ. I love calling people on their birthdays and letting kids beat me up and arguing scripture and resolving conflicts and singing loud and cracking jokes during wedding ceremonies and having my phone ring around the clock; I even love funerals. Despite accomplishing my aim in some very demonstrable ways, sometimes I feel my call is still doubted. Like I don’t get the respect I deserve–don’t they understand who sent me and what I’m trying to do?

But there’s no room for blame in this game.  People don’t always get me–I don’t always get me. I just feel fortunate to know what my life is for, and that I’ve helped a few people discover what they’re here for as well.

Onward and upward, Beloved.

When God Gets In The Way

Sometimes, nothing can be more upsetting than when God is active in your life….

Like this past Sunday. Pentecost Sunday, where we celebrate the Holy Spirit’s introduction to the church. I knew all week that I’d have to preach, so I did more or less what I normally do to prepare. And when I was finished, I had what I more or less normally have: a sermon that is 7-8 pages typed, double space in Times New Roman 12 point font. Even though I’ve had enough rehearsal and training that it doesn’t sound like I’m reading, I pretty much get up in the pulpit and read them my sermon word for word. For about the first 50 sermons I’ve done as a pastor, I’ve been a manuscript preacher. I like the manuscript.

A manuscript makes the length of the presentation predictable. I know that if I’ve written more than 2600 words, the sermon will start to be too long.

Also, manuscripts leave me with a nice record of the work I’ve done. I knew a preacher who had a desk drawer full of sermons–hundreds of them. Only problem was, they were all just vague concepts scribbled down so hurriedly not even he could read them all. Preaching is my craft, so I want to be able to go back and revisit and reuse the work I’ve done when appropriate.

So this Sunday, I had a great Pentecost sermon ready to print, but I didn’t have any paper at the house. So, I emailed it to myself and saved it on my trusty jump drive to print at church.

Got to church, and the jump drive wouldn’t work–tried it on 3 computers. Went to the email, and the attachment wouldn’t open….

So, after 12 hours of working on my final product, I’m at church without it, 20 minutes to showtime.

“Fruck!” I thought to myself.

Then I remembered, “God doesn’t make mistakes, this is happening for a reason.”

The “FRUCK!” thought came back over me. How am I supposed to preach without a sermon? No time to go back home and get it.

“Well, it isPentecost, so I guess I’ll just have to rely on the Spirit,” I decided. The funny thing is, that’s what preachers are always supposed to do, and that’s what I typically do, but not to the extent that I had to last Sunday. I guess in the end, it was for the best. I think I managed to remember most of the points I had prepared, plus I made a stronger connection with the congregation than usual.

My way with words makes my manuscripts great, but powerful preaching actually has very little to do with eloquence. 

The sermon topic: “I Didn’t Know You Had it in You”.

Now I know.

Beating The “Hell” Out Of Ourselves

During yesterday’s sermon, I put this image up on the Jumbotron as I preached from I Corinthians 9:24-27 about “Beating the Hell Out of Ourselves.”

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The scripture talks about the fact that in a race, many people run, but only one gets the prize. Christians should run their spiritual race in such a way as to win the prize.

Hate him or love him, Mr. Schwarzenegger is looking pretty impressive here. It’s no wonder he was Mr. Universe and a six-time Mr. Olympia. A few points worth considering:

-It takes work to see results. The more outstanding the results, the more difficult the work must have been to achieve them.

-We all have some hell inside of us. Weakness, jealously, addictions, anger, laziness….these things can rarely be talked out of us. They have to be beaten out with constant, 24/7 effort.

-You don’t achieve results of any kind just by standing still. If you don’t like where you are, there is at least one area in your life in which you could afford to pick up the pace.

-Ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things. In fact, the goal of religion arguably is to attain a “spiritual body” that’s as inspiring and honed as Arnold’s physique. When he started lifting weights at age 16, he only weighed 98 pounds and couldn’t afford a gym membership, but look at him now.

-Athletes workout and train to win cash and medals and t-shirts and respect. Christians are “training” so that they can be fully used by God in the world, so that we can live up to our higher calling. Sometimes, we get cash and t-shirts as an after effect, but doing all that you were born to do is better.

-If you look like Schwarzenegger, the enemies and bullies out there will think twice about trying to mess with you–they’ll generally move on to an easier target.

-He’s the governor of California now, but in this picture, he was just another meat head. But he was such a committed, visionary meat head that he got a chance to be an actor. And he was such a driven, memorable actor that he got to run for office. There’s no ceiling on what you can accomplish, even if you have already accomplished something that you consider great, God may have new levels in store for you.

-You wouldn’t take advice on how to look like a champion bodybuilder from someone who’s out of shape. Imagine a flabby coach in a velour sweat suit, whistle around his neck, telling Arnold how to shape his body properly. Easy to be a coach, but hard to be an effective one unless you’ve been there yourself. Perhaps there are too many Christian Coaches standing around beating the hell out of everyone else and not enough Christian Competitors beating the hell out of themselves.

Less Seth More God

Right before I preach, I usually offer up some sort of prayer asking God to move me out of the way and preach the sermon through  me.

I asked to be moved out of the way because the best sermons are the ones when people truly receive a word from God, not a person. Something powerful and fresh, something that each individual feels is just for them. A message that will resonate with them for months and years to come and change their lives for the better.

Since I can’t possibly write and deliver anything that magnificent on my own, I pray a lot during the sermon writing process. Then, just as I’m about to preach, I throw up one last prayer: “God, let me decrease so that you may increase.”

I gotta tell ya, that prayer really works. When you sincerely pray to have your ego, your pride, your crude sense of humor, your fear, and your unworthiness pushed aside and replaced by God’s wisdom and power, some amazing things can happen.

Then I realized, this prayer is too good to only use at the preaching moment. Why not use it all the time? Headed into a meeting? “God, move me out of the way so that I can listen and speak with your wisdom.” Feel an argument coming on? “God, fight this battle for me, because I like to fight dirty, and without you, I will only make matters worse.”

There is a small, dense, profound book called Light on the Path by Mabel Collins that perhaps says it best:

“Stand aside in the coming battle, and though thou fightest be not thou the warrior.”

Just Let It Go

When I was in the Peace Corps, I had a lot of time on my hands. I’m not proud of some of the things I did with that time, but one good thing I managed to do was read a Bible all the way through, underlining everything that resonated with me in any way. Then, I took my journal and wrote out about 600 of the most striking verses and stories. I had funny stories about circumcisions and witches, simple bits of wisdom you could live your life by, people being unwittingly impaled, inspiring verses that held obvious sermon seeds, sexually explicit lyrics, all the good stuff. Everything anyone ever talks about when they talk about the Bible, I had it in my 20-page handwritten reference.

I used that reference I made for years. I used to call it “The Light,” a play on its brevity and its enlightening power. When I didn’t know what to preach about, 5 minutes in The Light, and I was back on track. Someone wanted to know where in the Bible the men tried to gang rape two angels, I’d check The Light and tell them it was Genesis 19.

For the past eight years, I relied on The Light. I put a lot of work in to compile it, and it served me well. Sure enough, when I moved from New York to Los Angeles to finally become a full time pastor, I lost that journal among other things on the move. I have combed every bag and box we brought, which wasn’t all that much anyway, and it’s not here.

At first, I felt real despair, but I’m learning that despair and self-doubt don’t do me any good. I still have the same job description and the same preaching and teaching responsibilities Light or no Light. I just let it go.

I figure that God must not want me to be relying on it too much. Even though that frankly doesn’t make sense to me, I know that if my old notes were absolutely essential to my new job, I would still have them. So I just let them go. They’re gone anyway, so holding on to the memory and how easy things were in the good old days will only make me miserable. And since being miserable makes me miserable, I just let it go.

Just let it go.

Accomplishments and Ability

We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while others judge us by what we have already done. –Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Keep that quote in mind as you move toward greater success. Like me. As a minister, I often feel like a bit of an amateur. I’m teaching a few sparsely populated classes. I get a call to preach every now and then, but still, no church, no invitations to a 5 night revival, no book to sell. But who’s fault is that at the end of the day? I used to blame the older pastors. Oviously, they are jealous of my education, my gifts, my height, you name it. There must be a conspiracy to keep me out of the pastor game. Now I know, I just need to work at it a whole lot smarter (and a little harder).

Kanye West’s mother told him that until he could support himself with his music, it was just a hobby. Didn’t matter how passionate he was about it, or that he closed his eyes and imagined the good life, everyone was judging him not on his potential, but on his accomplishments. You too.