Gifts You Give Me Without Even Knowing It
Dr. Howard Lowry once said: “When one speaks on a significant occasion, he should, before he is finished, say the best thing that he knows.” This is a significant occasion-at least it is significant for me. You see, it was on the second Sunday of September 1968-twenty-five years ago now- that I stepped into the pulpit of the First Presbyterian Church of Kilgore, Texas and preached the first sermon of my ministry in the name of Jesus Christ. As a result, on this second Sunday of September every year since, I always do two things. I always have us sing “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken”, the hymn with which my first worship service began, and I always preach a sermon which is a bit more personal in nature. Today, then I would like to think with you about the ministry, and specifically about my ministry among you. I’d like to thank you for some gifts you give me without even knowing it.
I would like to frame my thoughts within Jesus’ great summary of the great Biblical message recorded for us in Matthew 22. You remember the words. Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind…and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Of course, Jesus’ words apply to all Christians, but today, I want to apply them just to the relationship which you and I share. Here then are some gifts you give me without even knowing it…
The first gift you give me is that you enable me to love the Lord our God.
Jesus said: “You should love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” There are several ways we express our love for God. Let me take them in ascending order.
The most basic way we love God is in terms of “gratitude”. We are thankful for what God has done for us, and so we love Him. It is that level of love for God of which Paul speaks when he writes: “We love Him because He first loved us.” If you go to a testimony meeting at church, most often the testimony will be about something God has done in an individual’s life, and in response, this individual offers praise to God. You find that same kind of love for God expressed in many of the Psalms contained in our Bible. Now, love for God out of gratitude for what He has done is quite beautiful, but it is also quite elementary. That is because it has about it a certain degree of selfishness. It is aroused, you see, by benefits received.
The next level of love for God is what I would term “excellence”. This is when someone loves God because of the glory of God revealed in the world about us. The psalmist writes: “O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!” This is a higher level of love than that of gratitude. It is an acknowledgement that the splendor and the majesty and the holiness and the justice and the goodness of God can be seen clearly in the world and in the orchestration of human events. It is a beautiful form of love for God, but it is still not the highest form because it depends upon our human reason, which is tainted by sin, and it focuses on what God does, rather than who God is.
The most advanced stage of love for God I would call “Adoration.” It is to love God not for what He gives and not for what He does, but simply for who He is. It is love given when no response is received or expected. I think the closest parallel to that kind of love I have seen is in the love my Dad had for my Mom in the last years of her life. After Alzheimer’s Disease had ravaged her and destroyed her human capacities, she was left balled up in a knot in the bed, completely unresponsive to the world about her. Not much gratitude in that-she could give nothing to my Father. Not much excellence in that-it was impossible to see the goodness of God in her circumstances. But still, my Dad loved her with all his heart. That was true because his love for her was not built upon “becauses”. He didn’t love her because of what she could give, or because of what she could do, or because of this or because of that. He just loved her. The highest form of love is the love which has no “becauses”. When we just love God for God, the heart soars.
It’s like the woman who went about with a torch in one hand, and a bucket of water in the other hand, and who said to all who would listen: “Would to God with this bucket of water I could put out the flames of hell, and with this torch I could burn heaven to ashes! Why? So that people might love God for His own sake. Not because of heaven, that they might attain it, and not because of hell that they might avoid it, but just because of God, that they might adore Him.”That’s the kind of love a minister seeks to display in his or her own life. But that’s not easy to do, because in so many congregations the people believe that the first assignment of a minister is to love them, not God. Such congregations place upon a minister demands and expectations built upon their own needs. Sometimes they even go so far as to seek to determine what the preacher preaches or doesn’t preach. One of the gifts you give me is that you have never once made such demands of me. Instead, you have encouraged me to love God, and serve God, and preach God alone.
Hugh Latimer, the great English preacher, was to speak one Sunday before royalty. A friend said to him: “Latimer, be careful what you preach today. The King of England is in the congregation.” To which Latimer instantly replied: “I shall be careful what I preach today but it is because the King of Kings is in the congregation.”
Astonishing pressures can be brought to bear upon a preacher. But if he loves God first, and serves God first, he will be strengthened in the tasks which are his. You have enabled me and encouraged me to love God with all my heart and with all my soul, and with all my mind. I thank you for that wonderful gift.
The second gift you give me is that you enable me to love all deeply, and to love some especially.
Jesus said: “You shall love your neighbor…” Now all of us like to be loved. That includes me. I am a minister, but I am also human. I like to be loved, and I like to have people to love. Just before I began my ministry here, a man said to me: “You are going to serve a large congregation. You should love all the members of your congregation as sisters and brothers in Christ, but you should not make close friends within that congregation. If you have a special closeness to a few, then you may wind up being hurt, and your ministry undermined.” I chose not to follow his advice. Instead I chose to follow the pattern of Jesus. The gospels make it clear that Jesus loved all twelve of his disciples deeply and intensely, but there were three of them he especially loved- Peter, James, and John. And you have allowed me to do the same.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy used to recite a little verse. It went like this:
Bullfight critics ranked in rows
Crowd the enormous plaza full
But only one is there who knows
And he is the one who fights the bull.
That’s the position in which the preacher finds himself. Our Lord knows that a preacher’s job is not easy. He knows that to be a preacher is to experience the pain of rejection, the frustration of failure, the attack of opposition, and the agony of persecution. He knows that the ministry is not a holiday, but a campaign. He knows the powers of this world are fearsome indeed. He knows there are worldly people out there who will attack every proposition the preacher puts forward. He knows that there are pagans out there who will ridicule the God the preacher loves. He knows there are self-sufficient people out there who don’t want any part of the Christ who is trying to reach out to them. He knows that there are people who could not care less about the church, and take special delight in undermining the preacher’s sense of worth and honor and dignity. He knows that when conflicts arise within the church, it is the preacher who, sooner or later, gets burned or bruised. The preacher encounters all of that and more, and it can hurt.
That’s why I am so grateful for this gift you have given me. You have given me this vast congregation of people to love and to serve, and it is sheer joy for me to do that. But also, you have allowed me to make some very deep, close friends here. I look out and see families who have specially embraced my family, and have treated us as members of their own family. I see people who have reached out to me, not as a minister, but as a friend, and have said to me: “I will love you and stand by you, no matter what.” I see people to whom I have been free to turn to for help in my own hurt and my own need and my own weakness, knowing that they would not hurt me for the world. Because of all that, I have been mightily strengthened in dealing with the relentless pressures of the calling which is mine. You have enabled me and encouraged me to love all of this congregation deeply, but to love some especially. I thank you for that wonderful gift.
The third gift you have given me is enabling me to love and care for myself. Jesus said, “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
This is not a call to pride or to selfishness, rather it is a call to self-acceptance. And it is a call to taking care of oneself- physically mentally, emotionally, as well as spiritually. You see, a weak and insecure person cannot be of strength and help to others. You have always so lovingly encouraged me to take good care of myself.
You see, the truth is that many preachers are not able to stand up to the strains of the ministry. They crash and cave-in– and they do it most often because they have not spent enough time loving and caring for themselves in a healthy, responsible, and spiritual way.
Some years ago, the King of England was to deliver an address of worldwide significance. The address was to be broadcast within the United States. It was to be beamed across the Atlantic Ocean to New York, and then from New York, out to the country. Just twenty minutes before the broadcast was to begin, in that New York studio, a cable was accidentally severed. Without that cable, the voice of the King would never be heard in America. There was not enough time before the broadcast to repair the cable. It was then that a young technician in that studio named Harold Vivian walked over, and with his one hand he picked up one end of the cable, and with the other, he picked up the other end of the cable. And then with 250 volts coursing through his body, so that at times it convulsed him, the voice of the King of England went through him, and out to the people.
That’s what preaching is. It’s taking in your one hand the hand of God, and taking in your other hand the hand of your people. Sometimes in being that connecting link, you will be convulsed. Sometimes convulsed with pain; other times convulsed with joy. But the real glory of it all is that through you the people shall hear the voice of the King. But, you can never survive being that connecting link unless you build yourself strong physically, mentally, emotionally, and especially spiritually. And you, my beloved, have always so lovingly encouraged me to take good care of myself.
Well… for all those gifts you have given me, there is only one gift which I can give to you. Back in the 1960’s, there was a great old man named Karl Barth. That name may not mean much to many of you, I suppose, but Karl Barth was one of the greatest scholars and thinkers and theologians of this century. He lived in Germany, and was driven out of Germany by Hitler, took up residence in Switzerland, and there he lived out his days. Once he came to the United States to deliver a lecture. All of the great minds of this country gathered together in order to hear the great Karl Barth speak, and to brush up against his enormous intellect. When his address had been concluded, there was a time for questions. One person in that audience stood and addressed the great Karl Barth: “Tell me, Sir, what is the most astounding truth you have ever encountered or discovered in your life?” The old white-haired Karl Barth thought for a moment and then said, simply: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
By now, you know that I am a simple man. I have a simple faith. I simply love Jesus. And the only gift I can give you is to try, for all I am worth, to bring the Jesus I love and you, the people I love, together- together forever….