Political essay (sort of)

I think it’s time I put my cards on the table about an issue that is dividing the nation. It is about Donald Trump, so brace yourself.

This is not something that I would ever say from the pulpit. I  believe that using the pulpit for partisan politics is an abuse of that sacred responsibility to preach the gospel.

My politics leans left although I reject the extremes of both the left and the right.   So call me a moderate by choice, not by default. I have voted for Democrats and  Republicans in my life time.  And although I disagreed with many of the policies of George W. Bush, I never believed that he was an evil man.  And I was outraged at the moral decay seen in the person of Bill Clinton.

But Trump is different. He has made me re-examine the gospel because I didn’t think my feelings about him were in sync with the Lord I follow.

So I am sorry in advance if I offend you. But this is really more about my own spiritual struggle than it is about politics.

TRUMP’S  FEET

Donald  Trump pisses me off. I wish I had a more polite way of saying that, but it is the most accurate verb I could come up with.  I know I am not alone in this feeling.  Most of the time, I reject absolutes when it comes to human beings. It is rare that someone is totally good or totally evil. But Trump may be the exception.

He is narcissistic and ego maniacal. He lies habitually. He does not care about the planet or any of the people on it. He cares only about himself. He has cheated hard working people out of what he owes them. He demeans and insults people like a fifth grader. He is a serial abuser of women. He is a xenophobic racist who could not care less about the least of these our brothers and sisters. The list goes on. I cannot think of one positive thing to say about the man. He just pisses me off.

It feels good to say that. It feels righteous. Jesus got mad at people like Donald Trump in the Bible.  He expressed anger at the Pharisees and the Chief Priests and the money changers in the Temple. If I could only stop there with those stories, I could revel in my anger at Trump.

But no; I had to go and read the thirteenth chapter of the gospel of John. Jesus washes the feet of the disciples. He was teaching them what love truly meant. He performed the lowliest and most disgusting task to teach them to love and honor each other.

I get that. But it is easy to forget that Judas Iscariot was on the ones who had his feel washed by Jesus that night.  And it wasn’t like Jesus didn’t already know what Judas was planning. Jesus bends down and washes his feet. Every disciple, then and now is imperfect. None of them and none of us, including me are absolutely good. And even old Judas was not exempt from the loving service that Jesus rendered.

Then Jesus offers one of his most difficult challenges to all who would follow him. “You also should do as I have done to to you.”

And there I was enjoying my righteous judgment of Donald Trump. I was enjoying my wrath toward him. And Jesus had to go and spoil my fun. But Trump pisses me off Jesus! I disagree with almost every position he holds and every abuse of power he demonstrates his lack of caring with executive orders and proposed laws that will hurt and in some cases kill people; some of those people I know. He seems sometimes to be the model of exactly what Jesus would NOT want us to be.

Yet, there is Jesus with that dirty towel around his waist and that look in his eyes that say love is unconditional. Then he reminds me that everyone, EVERYONE is created in the image of God. And he asks me, “Would you wash Donald Trump’s feet?”

I don’t know how to answer that.

YOU FINISH THE STORY

MARK 16: 1-8 EASTER APRIL 5, 2017

 

I. STRANGE: NO ENDING

A. So you are reading a good story. It is well written and it has kept your attention all through the chapters. The tension builds.Then, you get to the last line, where everything will be resolved, and there is no ending.  Would you be frustrated?  Or would you welcome the chance to decide for yourself how it would end?  In Martin Scorsese’s movie, Inception, there is a spinning top that tells you if the main character is inside a dream or in reality. At the end of the film he spins the top and you wait to find out which it is. And as the top spins, the screen goes black.  We never find out. We have to make up our own minds.

B. It’s a strange thing; a story with no ending. A young man played the bag pipes at funerals. The funeral director asked him to play the graveside of a homeless man who had no family or friends.  It was way back in the country where nobody else had been buried. The bag piper got lost. He was an hour late when through the clearing he saw the backhoe and the crew who were eating lunch. He apologized for being late, stepped to the side of the open grave where he saw that the vault lid was already in place. He began to play Amazing Grace as the workers gathered around. He finished and was walking back to his car when one of the workers said, “That was strange. I never heard anything like that before and I’ve been putting in septic tanks for twenty years.

C. It seems so strange at first that Mark does not provide us with an ending to the story of Jesus. He tells us about the women who go to the tomb to anoint his body even though they don’t know how they will get in with a huge stone blocking the entrance. And when they get there, the stone has been moved and there is a messenger from God in white who tells them to not be afraid.  And he tells them that Jesus is not here. He has been raised. The angel tells them to go and tell the disciples and Peter that he will meet up with them in Galilee.  And the women run away in terror and say nothing to anybody….. The end. Wait… What?  That is strange. In fact, it is so strange that believers in the centuries following added endings to the gospel. They were not comfortable with Mark’s ending. There is no resurrection appearance by the risen Christ.  It just stops. In Greek, it is literally in mid-sentence.  The reader is left waiting for the other shoe to drop.  But I like Mark’s original ending. It is a master stroke of storytelling. It leaves it to the reader to decide by faith how it ends.

 

II.     OVERHEARD, UNDERSTOOD, MISS THE POWER, SILENCE

A. Maybe the problem with the Easter story is that we have heard it so many times we think, “Yeah, yeah, I know. I’ve heard it and overheard it.”  Well, let’s take another look at Marks version. The women are the same ones who witnessed the crucifixion. Now, early on Sunday morning the sun rises, but they are still under a dark cloud of gloom and hopelessness. They are going to the tomb to serve a dead man. And it is not just the man that they mourn, but the end of a dream.  They didn’t know how they would overcome the obstacle of the stone, but they went anyway. When they got there the stone had been rolled away by God. And the young man in white told them to not be afraid and to go and tell. And they were terrified and they told no one.

B. But let’s not be too critical of these women. They were blown away. Who wouldn’t be? The angel says, see where they laid him?  He isn’t here. Nobody can put Jesus in a box. Death can’t hold him. Nobody can put up an obstacle that God can’t overcome.  Maybe their silence was due to the shock of this news. Sometimes silence is the only correct response. Prudy and I visited the American Cemetery in Normandy this summer. It was so moving, we both wept and neither of us could speak. We were blown away by the death of so many young men and the grief of those gold star mothers.  And here the women were confronted with the new reality of Jesus alive. It changed everything.

C. Maybe when we experience the real power and the real significance of Easter, we will be left without words too. If you came this morning wanting me to explain it or prove it, sorry. I can’t. But the power of that event is as real now as it was to those terrified women. If Easter is just a holiday to you or just a commemoration of an event, then you have missed that power.  The power of the empty tomb is strong enough to scare the hell out of us 2,000 years later.

                                                                            

III. GOD AT WORK

A. Jesus was dead. He wasn’t in a coma or pretending to be dead. He was dead in every sense of the word. The women knew he was dead. They were there when they took his body off the cross.  They had seen men do their worst.And now they saw God at It was God who raised Jesus to life.   It was God who stood tragedy on its ear.

B. Maybe silence is the only appropriate response to such an amazing announcement. But it’s Easter and I feel the pressure to give a great sermon in response to the greatest news ever. That’s how preachers are.  We are born with an extra bone in our heads that makes us always want to say something. One woman said there will be no preachers in heaven.  Why, I asked. Because it says in Revelation that there will be complete silence in heaven for ½ hour and that would be impossible for preachers.

C. But I have to proclaim to you that He is risen. In my personal ending to Mark’s gospel, the women do ultimately tell the others that Jesus is alive. That’s backed up by the other gospel writers and Peter in Acts and Paul in Corinthians. But their initial silence shows that they understood the magnitude of this event. Awe struck and almost afraid to believe that it was true. And Mark allows us the readers to stand in their place and feel that power.

D. The angel tells the women that Jesus is going before you. Jesus will always be about what comes next. Jesus never dwells on what was before. And the church, Hope Church takes great comfort in that. We are the Easter people and we are ready to meet the living Christ in what comes next; no matter the obstacles. So God is present in the joyful, loud Hallelujah filled Easter morning celebrations. And God is just as present in the moments of our awe-inspired silence and speechless traumas.

 

IV. CONTINUED REALITY

A. Some cynics say that the early church borrowed secular elements for the celebration of Easter like the spring equinox and lilies and colored eggs.  Well, of course they did, because that is what Jesus He takes common secular things and turns them into sacred elements. So ordinary things like bread and juice and wood and nails and colored eggs and even death are given new meaning.

B. Easter is not just a holiday. And it is not just the remembrance of something that happened long ago. It is more than history. Its current events. It is a continuing reality for every frightened follower of the one who conquered the power of death for us all.  I’m sorry I don’t have a wiz bang, knock your socks off sermon for you. The point for each of us is to ask about our response to resurrection.  At first, if we really experience the power of what it means, our response might be awe-filled silence. And then we provide, not the ending of the story, but the ongoing reality of what it   And the response that God wants to see from us is……..

 

How I Write a Sermon Part Three

PART THREE OF HOW I WRITE A SERMON

Now that I have an outline that has developed as a result of prayer and serious study, I am ready to write the first draft of my sermon.  While all of the pieces so far have taken days and have been interrupted by other demands in life, I try to write the sermon in one sitting.  If I don’t, I lose the flow of where it is headed.

Sometimes I delete entire paragraphs because I realize that they don’t fit with the theme. Sometimes I am inspired by illustrations that come to mind, or current events. I like to think of the sermon as a structure. The illustrations are windows that let us see within the structure.

It is also very helpful to not make all of the illustrations about church. I try to keep in mind that many of the listeners spend 167 hours outside of the church and one inside. The illustrations have to have something to do with where they live.

That is what it is so important that the preacher be a part of the community to which she preaches. Some wise old pastor said, “The preacher should drink out of them same well as the members of  his church,”  It is harder for me to preach to a group of strangers, Invariably those sermons are more generic and less personal and less helpful.

After I finish a first draft, usually on Wednesday, I let it sit for a day. Then I read it as a whole and get a sense of what it needs to be a stronger message.  My re-wires are usually not an entire new script. They are just changes made in parts that need improvement. I try to remember that the sermon is a spoken medium instead of a written one.  A sermon can read well, but not sound the same. Early in my career, I would go to the church on Saturday night and practice preach my sermon to an empty sanctuary. I don’t do that anymore. I just preach it to myself in my office. This has led to more than one person expressing concern. “The pastor is in his office talking to himself.”

It is important to be heard. I try to “play to the back pew” even when there is a sound system working. I let the tech people adjust to my voice rather than the other way around. It is important to be clear with you words. Whispering for effect works sometimes, but usually leaves people asking, “What did he say?”

I love to come back to some point made earlier in the sermon as I near the finish. That seems to give the sermon continuity. Sometimes I like to end the sermon with a question, or an unfinished statement. Let the congregation do some of the work of interpretation.

Well, that’s how I do it. But I always tell student pastors to find their own style. Don’t try to preach like Fred Craddock or James Forbes or Tom Long or even Rick Sweeney. Be yourself. Don’t develop a “pulpit voice” It will just sound phony, believe me. And don’t be afraid to be creative. Try different styles. Do some story telling. Walk away from the pulpit when you think that will help deliver a point in the sermon. Don’t read your sermon.  It is OK to take notes into the pulpit, but if you just read it, the congregation will miss eye contact with you and feel like you were not really talking to them.

Part of preaching is a science that you must learn from experience. And some of it is a gift that God has given you. Don’t waste the gift by failing to do the work.

JOKE OF THE DAY

The little boy asked his mom if all of the angels are women. The mom says, “No dear, why do you ask?” The little boy said, ‘Well in the pictures none of the angels have beards.” And mom answered, “That’s because all of the men in heaven got there by a close shave.”

 

HOW I WRITE A SERMON PART TWO

OK, back to homiletics. That is the official name of the study of preaching.

In Part One, we had covered the work of selecting, and reading and researching the text or passage for that sermon. Now we have to use the information we have gathered to create a statement of synthesis and and outline of the sermon.

Part B is a brief statement that tells what the sermon is about.  It must follow the research I have already done. It can be no more than a sentence or two.  It states THE point of the sermon. Too many sermons are all over the place. But it lacks focus.  I like to ask someone what the sermon was about. Then I can see if that fits my summary statement in Part B. I had a professor once say that every sermon should have at least one point. That seems like it should be obvious. But there are too many sermons that leave you wondering what it was about. Most of the time that is because the preacher did not work hard enough on his synthesis statement.

It’s a little strange that this is the shortest part of the process on paper. But in many ways it is the most difficult part.  It must be informed by the exegesis that you have created. Let’s look at that word. Exegesis means “drawing out.” All of the study I do is for the purpose of drawing out the meaning of the text. I try very hard not to preaching some idea that I have and then find a Bible passage that supports that idea. To me,that is not preaching.  A sermon is a preacher helping the listeners hear the message that the Bible is presenting.

Once I have written a solid Part B, my thesis statement, I am ready to begin to write an outline.  There is no magic number of sub-points to a sermon. I try to let the text inform me about how the message should flow. In the outline it is time to take all of the material  I have found and build a kind of skeleton for the sermon. While I am doing this, I think about where the major transitions will be and the order in which I want to present the material. I try to remind myself that you cannot and should not try to preach the whole Bible in one sermon.  The outline has to stick to the main them that I have written in Part B.

I don’t worry about how long the sermons will be.  Some of that is the style I have developed over the years.  Mine are usually somewhere between 15 and 20 minutes.  A professor was asked  how long one should preach. He said,”preach until you are finished and then for God’s sake, stop. There is nothing worse for the kingdom of God than to bore s group of people for a long time.  While I am doing the outline, I think about where the illustrations will fit. Some do not. It is a mistake to use a story just because you think it’s great if it doesn’t fit into the theme of the sermon. Save it for another time.

I do a strange little thing while creating my outline. I highlight the various things I have found and the illustrations I have thought of. I color code them with different colored highlighters. This helps me visualize the flow of the sermon and makes it easier for me to write the actual sermon.  My kids always thought it was funny that I “color”my sermons. I told them it was therapy for old people. Next time we will finish the sermon writing process. Then I will be including some sermons for your amusement.

 

JOKE OF THE DAY

The preacher was giving a children’s sermon in the fall. He wanted to talk about being prepared for the future.  He said, “Boys and girls, what is it that is gray and has a bushy tail and climbs trees?” One little guy answered, “I know the right answer is always supposed to be Jesus, but that sure sounds like a squirrel to me.”

A Christmas Story in July

After I read my last post, I realized that it would not be very interesting to those of you who don’t write sermons. So today, I am going to share a true story. This really happened.  So here is a little Christmas cheer in July. Sometimes funny things happen in church and I think that is a good thing. Ann Lamott called laughter “carbonated holiness.” I will post part two of how I write a sermon later.

Sometimes December 25 falls on a Sunday. Most of the churches I have served have two or even three services on Christmas Eve. But when Christmas day happens to be on a Sunday we have worship services again on Sunday morning.

As usual, attendance is pretty low when that happens. We decided to have an informal service. I invited everyone to come to church in their pajamas. One woman said she didn’t wear pajamas. And while that might have improved attendance, she just stayed home.

A woman who was near or beyond 70 asked me if her mother could play the piano during that service.  I thought, “How old must mother be?” But I said yes figuring there wouldn’t be very many people there anyway.

She showed up and she was darling.  The woman helped her mom to the piano and she began to play.  She started out with Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Then she moved into Away in the Manger and Silent Night.  She played in a kind of honky-tonk style, but it was nice. Then she started into a lively version of Jingle Bells which is not a hymn, but what the heck. Then she started to play Santa Baby; honest to God. I am pretty sure that Santa Baby had never been played as part of a worship service before. I could almost hear those old Presbyterians out in the cemetery rolling in their graves.  Someone once said that a Presbyterian was someone who was upset that someone somewhere in the world was having fun. That did not define my congregation there.

The daughter was embarrassed and she told her mom to stop. But it turns out mother was nearly deaf. Her daughter ran up to the piano and yelled into her ear to stop. People were trying not to laugh, but it was too funny to hold it in. It’s OK, mom couldn’t hear the laughter anyway.

Later in the service the 90+ year old woman played a duet with her great-grand daughter. It was lovely and touching. You never know what surprises the Spirit has in store.  People afterward said it was the best Christmas Day service they had ever attended.

JOKE OF THE DAY

Four surgeons were discussing the easiest patients to operate on. The first said it was accountants because everything in them was numbered. The second said it was electricians because every part was color coded. the third surgeon said he thought it was librarians because everything was in alphabetical order. But the fourth surgeon topped them all. He said, “The easiest people to operate on are politicians. There are no guts, no spine, no heart, no brain and the head and the butt are interchangeable.”

How I write a sermon

Do people in the pews of churches ever wonder how the preacher creates the sermons they listen to?

In case anyone is interested today I will begin a three part blog on the process I use. This is not universal to all preachers. The only one I know is my own.

  1. Reading the passage
  2. Part A: The research
  3. Part B: The point
  4. Creating an outline
  5. Writing a first draft
  6. Delivery

PART I

READING THE PASSAGE

It may seem like a no-brainer. You have to read the passage before you can deliver a sermon based on it.  But it is more involved than it seems. First there is the selection of the passage,called a text for that sermon. i generally use the lectionary. That is a list of Biblical passages for each Sunday. There are usually at least four texts listed.  I read them all and determine which one is the most relevant to the congregation I am speaking to. Sometimes I choose a text that is not one of the lectionary lessons. Some preachers never follow the lectionary. There is no right or wrong way to choose. But there is a danger in choosing your own passage. You may be tempted to tell the listeners what you think with a passage from the Bible to back you up. To me, that is not preaching. That is a lecture with the Bible as a pretext. But that’s just me.

Once I have selected a passage, the next step is to read it prayerfully. I desperately need God’s guidance to deliver a message to God’s people. Sure it goes through the filters of my life and my perspective, but it must be the text that informs me as to what I  will say; not the only way around.

Then I read it again. This time I make a list of the characters and the verbs. I begin to ask myself the Who What When Where and Why questions. I jot these questions down. If this is a familiar passage that I have preached before, it is important for me to try and see the text anew; like I have never read it before. Now, with one more prayer, it is time to start doing the hard work of research.

 

PART A: THE RESEARCH

There are many books called commentaries. These are written by scholars about one of the books of the Bible.  They contain important information about the passage you are preaching. They tell you if there are language issues to be aware of. For instance in Genesis 29 the writer talks about Leah’s eyes. The Bible I use translates it as lovely eyes.  Other translations call them weak eyes or dull eyes. There is a footnote in my version that tells me that the Hebrew meaning of the word is unclear. No kidding! Commentaries also tell you if there are text issues. Read the end of Mark’s Gospel. If your Bible is like mine you will have three different versions of the ending. Which one is closest to the original and why would there be more than one? That is a text issue. the commentaries then follow the text verse by verse giving valuable background information about the setting and the meaning of the terms used.

I usually try to have have four sources. Some are more scholarly than others. Some try to help with the transition to themes. Some of my favorites are Feasting on the Word, The New Interpreters Bible, The Interpretation Series and a  on-line commentary edited by Walter Brueggemann. I also use the Barclay series sometimes. It is not as academic as the others, but it is still very helpful. I also use specific work for some texts. I cannot preach one of the parables without referring to Ken Bailey’s work.

I take notes as I do this research.  A skill that I have developed with time is to write only the significant things about the text and leave out the trivial. This Part A will inform the development of Part B which we will examine next time.

 

JOKE OF THE DAY

The little boy was sitting in church during the sermon. He said to his dad, “What does it mean when the preacher looks at his watch?” His father responded, “Not a thing, son, not a thing,”

Hey,

I have been on face book for years, but I rarely post anything. So for anyone who might care, here is an update on my life since 2014.

I was honorably retired from Newton Presbytery in June of 2014 where I had served as pastor of the New Vernon Presbyterian Church for seven years.

During that time, Prudy and I had a new home built in a 55+ community back in Mechanicsburg PA. In 2015, my mom passed away.

We love our house, but we would love to be closer to kids and grand kids in Pittsburgh.  So we are trying to sell our house here and move west.

After retiring and moving back to central PA, I accepted the job of interim pastor at a church in Dauphin PA. The Hope U. P. Church was a wonderful congregation. I really enjoyed my work with them until March of this year when they called a very talented young woman to be their shared pastor with another church nearby.

Here is what our kids have been up to.

Jason: Lives in Northumberland. He has twins named Ainsley and Jason who are 15

Jennifer: Lives in  Galloway New Jersey. She has two boys, Vincent, 11 and Lucas 9

Jill: Lives in Pittsburgh and has two boys, Alexander, 5 and Julius, 2

Kate: Lives in England. She has a daughter Juliet, 8 and Simon 7

Hope lives in Pittsburgh and has one daughter Eve, 6 months

Jill lives in Pittsburgh and will be married in 2018

Dalitso lives in Hummelstown and has one son, Josh, 9

You will have to forgive me if i got some of the ages wrong.  My memory is not as good as it once was and my memory is not as good as it once was.

Our grand children are the most precious gifts in our lives.

Prudy and I are well with the usual ailments of arthritis and other assorted age-related issues. We have done a lot of traveling since retirement and have really loved it.

We are both trying our hand at writing.  Prudy has written several children’s books. I have written a series of essays on ministry which we will self-publish soon. I have also written a series of short stories and I am working on a novel.  Don’t look for me on the New York Times best seller list just yet.

JOKE OF THE DAY

A minister was invited to dinner at the home of members of his church. When he arrived, the mother proudly told him that her 6 year old daughter had set the table by herself. When they sat down to eat, the mom noticed that there was no silverware at the pastor’s spot. “Honey, why didn’t you set silverware at the pastor’s place?”  “Well mommy I didn’t think he needed them. Daddy says he eats like a horse.”

What do you know, preacher?

The title of my collection of essays which will be published soon, is Wadda Ya Know Preacher?

The title is explained in the introduction for the essays. A retired funeral director named Mr. Stover greeted me the same way each time we met. Whadda ya know, preacher?  The essays are an attempt to answer that question. But I realize that I continue to learn and grow in spite of retirement.

You don’t learn how to be a pastor and a preacher in seminary. They give you some basic tools that will help you once you are in a local church. But you don’t really learn how to do this work until you are on the job.

I have served a variety of churches over the years.Some of them were small and some large. Some were urban and others were suburban or rural. Some of those churches were wealthy and some were very poor, And while the experiences vary from one church to another there are similarities in all of them. One cynical friend described it as “Different circus; same clowns,”

What I plan to do in this blog is to tell some of those stories in brief.  The stories are on topics such as:

  • The day the robin flew into the sanctuary and sat and listened to the whole sermon.
  • The moment of truth when I got a speeding ticket
  • The battle over the American flag
  • Everybody goes home from church barefoot

Some stories are funny. Others are sad. They are all true events that took place in my years of ministry.

I have developed a style of preaching that usually begins with a story or a joke that pertains to the theme of the sermon. From time to time, I will include some of those in case you want to borrow one for one of your sermons.

 

 

Hello, my name is Rick Sweeney

Hello! My name is Rick Sweeney. I have served as a Presbyterian pastor for the last forty years.  In this blog, I want to share some thoughts about ministry and life as I have experienced them.

Some of the things I will be sharing will have to do with preaching, pastoral care, church humor, staff issues and more.

I hope that you will follow as I recount the lessons I have learned and am still learning.

Look for information about a book that I am about to publish that is entitled Whadda Ya Know, Preacher?