Some Reflections On Fifteen Years Of Ministry
On the second Sunday of September 1968, my ministry in the Presbyterian Church began. Today, fifteen years later, is a good time for reflection. And, as I have thought back over what has been, I have not given myself to tallying up victories or to putting together a sub-total of defeats. Instead, I have been led to think about the things that I have failed to do—not so much the things that I have done wrong, but the things I haven’t done at all!
As I have looked back over those fifteen years, one word of Scripture has come to me repeatedly with ever-growing power. It’s a verse I never paid much attention to before. It’s hidden right in the middle of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It reads, “Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.” As I have looked back to some of the things I haven’t done in these fifteen years, that verse has pounded away at my heart.
So let’s look closely at that verse. The phrase “going down that road” is very literal in its meaning. Jerusalem is 2000 feet above sea level. Jericho is 1000 feet below sea level. So the Jericho Road, only about 20 miles in length, descends some 3000 feet between the two cities. It was—and is—a winding, tortuous journey which carried the traveler through treacherous mountain passes, lined with deep caves, where bandits would frequently hide out. In those days, the Jericho Road was commonly called “The Way of Blood,” so hazardous was the journey there. And that’s exactly what the man in Jesus’ story discovered. He was making the trip from Jerusalem down to Jericho when he was suddenly attacked by bandits. They beat him. They robbed him. They stripped him. They left him for dead.
Then into the story Jesus inserts what has become for me a most discomforting little verse. “Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw the victim, he passed by on the other side.” The question, of course, is why did he do that. I think I know the answer. Or at least I think I know why this priest—why I have sometimes passed by on the other side. Here is what I mean, straight from the heart…
There is the possibility, first of all, that the priest passed by because he felt that the man’s needs were beyond his own ability to help.
That’s an easy rationalization for me to make. I often find myself saying, “I’d like very much to be able to do something about that situation, but it is beyond me —I do not have sufficient ability to help.” I am painfully aware of my limitations How many times I have been writing a sermon intended for those who gather here on Sunday only to discover that it was just the thing Howard Edington needed to hear. When I have talked about prayer, I have been forced to see the inadequacy of my own prayer life. When I have spoken about the necessity for commitment to Christ, I have had to face up to the shoddy areas of my own commitment. When I have addressed the issues of the day, I have had to admit my own lack of action. Whenever I stand in the pulpit to preach, I am forced to the verge of tears by the realization that I must always say “we” and not “you.” When I have called people to live the Christian life, or when I have attempted to minister to people in great need, I have come to the harsh awareness that I all too often say, “This is beyond me.” When I have to go to a man and tell him that his daughter is not going to get well, or when I have to hold the hand of a little boy and try to explain to him why his father can’t stay sober—in so many instances like that I find myself too readily saying, “I can’t do it. It’s beyond me.”
Strange, I know, that a minister of the Gospel of Christ should say something like that. For Jesus Christ, you remember, was the One who never thought any situation was beyond His reach. Be it liar or lunatic or leper, He never said, “I can’t help—this one is beyond me.” Jesus Christ is never inadequate.
So when you leave Jerusalem on the Jericho Road, if instead of turning right toward Jericho, you turn left and follow that road a short way, you come to a place where there is a hill by the side of the road—a hill called Calvary„ Pontius Pilate is there, looking up at the One who hangs on the cross. Pilate says, “Surely you understand that there are some things even a Roman governor cannot do. It was simply beyond my capacity to be able to help.” I confess to you that sometimes I have said what Pilate said. But Jesus, the One who never gave up, just hangs there, dying…
Or maybe there was another reason why the priest passed by—maybe it was because of the pressure of other things.
I mean, he was in a hurry to get back to Jericho. He had finished his business in Jerusalem, and it was time for him to get back to his own parish. His people expected him, and besides, there were countless meetings and paperwork and a sermon to write. But now there was this blasted interruption! That is what it was. The passage says, “Now by chance a certain priest…” Just a chance, a coincidence, a freak incident that happened along the way—and you know perfectly well that you just can’t let interruptions keep you from the main business of life. There are certain priorities that have to be established and met. First things must come first Isn’t that true?
Late one afternoon, Tom Shipp, the great Methodist preacher from Dallas, was leaving his office on the way to an important meeting. In the hallway he was approached by a man with an obvious alcohol problem. The man was asking for help. Shipp hurriedly told him that he could come to the office the next morning and he would try to help him. Then he quickly moved on to make that next appointment. That night the police called. A man had shot himself. There was a suicide note, It was addressed to Dr. Tom Shipp. It read, “I won’t need help tomorrow morning. I needed it today.”
As a minister, I understand Tom Shipp’s problem. You can’t just stop—can you—every time someone comes and wants to intrude into the order of events you have so carefully planned. But then as a minister, I have to think of Jesus and of how often He was interrupted—how little children came climbing up into His lap, how pushy mothers came seeking good positions for their sons, how the disciples badgered Him with frequently inane questions, how the Pharisees came to argue and to shipe, how the sick came to be healed. Why He was forever being interrupted, yet for all my trying I can find no place where He ever put anyone off.
The word in the Bible which means “the love of Jesus Christ” is the word “agape. I saw where someone made it into an acrostic. “A—always, G—give, A—all, P—people, E—everything. Always give all people everything.” I looked at that and said, “If I practiced that, I could go mad.” But maybe that’s what loving like Jesus loved really is—a kind of madness.
As you leave Jerusalem on the Jericho Road, if you turn left instead of right toward Jericho, you come to a place by the side of the road called Calvary. Judas is there, looking up at the One who hangs upon the cross. Judas said, “I would like to have helped but first things come first. Our top priority is to get those despicable Romans out of our country. And like I said, first things have to come…” I confess to you that sometimes I have said what Judas said. But Jesus, the One who always had time, just hangs there, dying…
There is one other reason why the priest passed by—perhaps he was just afraid.
That’s understandable. Why the bandits could have been hiding in nearby caves at that moment. They could have been using their poor victim as a decoy. And if the priest stopped to help the poor fellow, they might ambush him.
I know what it means to be afraid. When I look at what it takes to be a minister today, I see a complex mixture of spiritual advisor, prophetic preacher, skilled administrator, and beloved pastor. Yet if I am honest with myself, I know that frequently I am not spiritual enough to advise anyone; that I don’t really want to pay the price of being a prophet; that my administrative plans, more often than not, look like Jericho after the trumpets were blown; and that if I am a beloved pastor, it is a love which I have neither earned or deserved. The tasks to which I am called are so varied that it is downright frightening. Preacher, psychologist, evangelist, teacher, marriage counselor, social worker, business executive and theologian—and every single day I have to face failure in one or more facets of my work. So I know what it is to be afraid. I tremble with fear to stand in the pulpit—and if you were close enough to me you could see it. I tremble with fear at daring to be an agent of God’s Holy Spirit. I tremble with fear when trying to be of help in other people’s lives. I tremble with fear when called upon to take an unpopular stand in obedience to the directive of my Lord. And there are times when that fear causes me to pass by on the other side.
They say that back in a remote corner of heaven there is a very beautiful pool which is filled with the tears of men and women who are giving themselves away in love, no matter the cost. The tears flow into that pool every hour of every day. And they say that those who so love and cry sing the sweetest songs in heaven. I’d like to think that is true.
And I rather imagine that the sweetest song of all is sung by a Samaritan who overcame his fear and ran the risk and stopped to love and to help awhile.
Now, if you turn left on the Jericho Road rather than right toward Jericho, you come to a place called Calvary. A Roman centurion is there looking up at the One who hangs upon the cross. He says, “I would like to have helped, but I was afraid to stick my neck out, afraid to run the risk. You get the point, don’t you?” I confess to you that there have been times when I have said what that centurian said But Jesus, the One who wasn’t afraid to risk anything, even His own life, just hangs there, dying…Oh, I know…
You think it is strange that on a day like this I should take you to a place called Calvary, But, you see, I don’t know any other place to take you. And it’s been that way for fifteen years.
Just before this ministry of mine began, I received a letter from my mother-in-law. I still carry it in my wallet fifteen years later. The letter said, “Howard, I want to be like the woman who pressed a paper into the hand of her minister as she left church one Sunday. On it was written,’Through you, we would see Jesus.’ The Church has the unique message of Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour of all, who can change the world. Peter and Paul took every opportunity to preach these truths. The opportunity is now yours. Through you, we would see Jesus.”
That’s why I take you to Calvary, Because while I am a man of many faults, nevertheless God has called me to “preach Christ and Him crucified.” All those 15 years ago Jesus said to me what Hamlet said to Horatio: ” If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, then absent thee from felicity awhile; and in this harsh and cruel world draw thy breath in pain to tell my story.”
I hold my Jesus in my heart. And I have tried to tell His story. There has been pain—the pain of inadequacy, the pain of pressure, the pain of fear and failure. But for 15 years I have tried to tell His Story. And that is what I shall continue to do as long as God gives me grace to travel His road.
Now that road has led me here to Orlando, to this church, to you. You have opened to me and to my family your hearts and your lives. That is confirmation of the fact that God has set me in your midst for just such a time as this. And as I look back over these 15 years, as wonderful as they have been, it seems to me that they have been preparation for what is happening in my ministry now. My friends, by the power of Jesus Christ, I say to you: the best is yet to be. Oh, it won’t be easy. The way is hard. The challenges are great. The hazards are real. But, the best is yet to be. I know because I have seen the power of Jesus Christ, and that power is here in this church in a special way.
So I’m here and I’m ready for whatever God has out there before us. What about you? Will you join me in the journey?