Many years ago my mentor and friend, Pastor Antti Lepisto, told me that we all have ‘one sermon’ which we just keep preaching over and over again. I know he meant that in terms of what comes from the pulpit week after week, but these days I am wondering if it is even more than that.
For it is so that I heard this certainty repeated when Eugene Peterson’s (author of The Message along with a host of other books), son, Leif, revealed his dad’s ‘one message,’ something he would repeat to him night after night:
In much the same way, my dad, who was not a preacher himself, would often ponder what it was he wanted on his gravestone which would summarize his life. His top preferences were:
“He did not raise helpless women.”
(I have three sisters.)
“He stood on his record.”
In fact, we put neither one on his stone, but it was a gift to hear him wonder at what ‘message’ he would leave behind.
So it is with John today, we are left to wonder at his ‘one sermon.’ Only just as my dad. Just as with Eugene Peterson. And yes, just as with my mentor and friend, Antti, John’s ‘message’ was so much more than words spoken. And yet, we begin there.
We know the gist of it by heart, of course.
- We recall that John’s word to his listeners was a call to repentance for the forgiveness of their sins.
- We know that his tone was often harsh — or at least we presume this is so as we hear once more today that John addressed those gathered with the unenviable title, “You brood of vipers!”
- We know that he was not afraid to ‘speak truth to power’ — calling leaders to account, a ‘sermon’ which would quickly lead to his unjust imprisonment and the violent ending of his life in a most gruesome way.
And we know this. When his listeners asked what they should ‘do’ in response to his preaching, he fleshed out his ‘message’ in a way that was simple and down to earth:
- Share your extra coat.
- Take your excess food and feed someone else.
- And no matter your work, whether tax collector or soldier or anything in between, do that work with integrity.
This was John’s sermon. This was John’s sermon meant to assist his listeners in preparing the way for the One who was coming after. And this sermon showed them exactly what this could look like in the day to day details of their own lives.
And so it is that I, like you, have cause to wonder as well what ‘message’ it is we will leave behind. Perhaps it is so that we can take a hint from John today who not only with his words, but with his very life, demonstrated a focused clarity on what mattered most. In these last months and weeks and days, at least in a small way, doing so has looked like this for me:
For much of my ministry I have lived by the certain truth that pastors need to ‘show up.’ This is what I was taught to do, and surely there was good reason for this for part of the call of a pastor or priest is to communicate the gift of a God who was incarnate among us. Surely our being physically present helps to demonstrate this. So this is why whenever possible I do try to ‘go’ when the call comes. To the hospital. To the nursing home. To someone’s home or place of employment. A decade or so ago this part of my own sense of call overflowed to include the larger community when I agreed to be a volunteer chaplain at our local hospital. At first it wasn’t too great a demand on my time or energy. Every six weeks or so I would be one of two pastors ‘on call’ and I would receive a call or two a week, if that. Several months ago, though, the demands began to increase. Due to changes at the hospital, there has no longer been anyone really overseeing the program, just someone who sends an email out to set up the schedule. Due to normal attrition, the number of volunteer chaplains has dwindled, and no one has been there to recruit new ones. For the last several cycles, I have been the only one ‘on call’ during my assigned week. At the same time, nurses have gotten better about calling when help is needed. Last week I took eight calls, several of which required me to stop back a number of times. All of this has been so during a stretch of time when the pastoral needs of those in my own congregation have increased. Indeed, all of this has been so in the course of a year when I have officiated at 21 funerals, two of which were double funerals, and a number of which were especially heartbreaking. I was becoming frayed and frazzled. Something had to give. And so I did something I have only done a handful of times in my life. I finally quit. I sent an email to the one who coordinates the volunteer chaplain schedule asking her to take me off the rotation.
Oh I have ‘quit’ before in the sense that I have left one pastoral call for another. I have given up responsibilities in one community as I went to make another one my home. But I can only think of a couple of other times when I have made this kind of decision. And they were a long time ago.
- One was when I was in the fifth grade. I had already been taking piano lessons for over a year when the grade school orchestra conductor recruited me to play the viola. This doubled my practice time each week and I just wasn’t keeping up. After a few months of fretting about it (for yes, as we know, fifth graders can also carry a heavy load), I told my folks I wanted to quit the viola. The next week I turned in my instrument. I did, however, continue to take piano lessons for the next decade. Although I don’t play as much any more, I was especially glad a few days back when at the last minute our regular accompanist wasn’t able to make it to our monthly communion service at Oak Crest, a retirement community here in DeKalb. The result of my sitting down at the bench wasn’t especially great, but it wasn’t terrible either. Even at that, this was only possible because more than 40 years ago, I made a choice.
- And this. I was a senior in high school. I had played volleyball for three seasons. I was not especially good at it, spending most of my time on the bench. Indeed, I expect they kept putting me on the team because I worked so hard, certainly not because I had any particular skill or even passion for the game. That year I didn’t try out. I had not enjoyed the season before at all and I wanted to put my time and energies towards my position on the speech team. This was a decision I never regretted. Indeed, I have often said that my growth in those early years as an ‘extemporaneous speaker’ did as much to equip me for what I do now as anything else in those early years. All because at the age of 17, I made a choice.
They are small things, of course, but they came to mind this week as I made another such choice: as I consider John’s ‘one sermon’ in his call to ‘repent,’ to ‘turn around,’ to ‘make choices which matter.’ And yes, as I think about it in these days, to do so knowing that each and every such ‘choice’ shapes the message, informs the ‘one sermon’ which is ours to share today and to one day leave behind.
This week I chose to leave behind something important, work that matters, yes, but which was finally taking more than I had to give. Even more than that though, I expect, my own ‘repenting’ in this instance is in coming to a realization once more of my own limits. In the recognition that God has called many to this important work and the gifts of countless others are as welcome and needed as my own. And oh, more than that, I am realizing that I had to ‘repent’ and I have to ‘repent’ — to turn back from my own self understanding of myself as a pastor who always ‘shows up.’ For no one. No one but God can do that.
And so it is with all of you I am wondering:
- How is John’s ‘one sermon’ speaking to you today?
- What are you called to ‘repent of’ in order to bring clarity to the message you are called to share? What, if anything, are you being called to set aside, to leave behind?
- What ‘one message’ is your life shaping even now?