Saturday, November 25, 2006

Sermon annotation number 1: Ephesians 6.18-24, given at seminary

Well, I've given three sermons this semester, all on short notice and temporally in quick succession. As I haven't been scripting them, I cannot recall all that was said, but I do have rough outlines that I hope interested parties can use as preaching tips. My rhetorical skills have been a touch on the shabby side due to a number of factors, but in terms of content I think I've done a decent job of isolating something edifying and often something not terribly obvious in some mildly difficult passages. Here are my preaching notes with relevant texts attached.

Sermon 1: Ephesians 6:18-24

praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints - and for me, that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak. But that you also may know my affairs and how I am doing, Tychicus, a beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord, will make all things known to you; whom I have sent to you for this very purpose, that you may know our affairs, and that he may comfort your hearts. Peace to the brethren, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. Amen

The topic of this sermon had to do with boldness. First I placed this verse within the wider context of its chapter. The verse is the continuation of the 'spiritual warrior' analogy, where the final element in the warrior's garb is the sword of the gospel. I noted that the sword is the only aggressive piece in the warrior's equipment. The preached gospel is, therefore, all that can be used to "attack".

But a warrior needs more than proper equipment. Normally one of the biggest factors in elite military units is moral, or as the French say, esprit de corps. It's the warrior's attitude and discipline that are necessary to maximize the benefit of the solid equipment. In the best units the warriors also believe in the cause - they're willing to give their lives for its success.

Paul here is being drug before the Roman courts. His prayer is to be given an "utterance" in his captivity so that he may "proclaim the gospel" - the very sword mentioned in the previous passage. But beyond that, his rational for wanting this utterance is so that "I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak."

Now most of us may never be dragged into a hostile court to make account of our faith, but is boldness then lost?

Let's hope not. Even reading the early fathers, the impression one gets is that right or wrong in their individual assertions, there is no lack of boldness in their speech. But what of us? At seminary I'm preaching to future pastors, counselors, educators, and other leaders of the Church. In what sense are we to be bold? How could we look for boldnes in those around us and cultivate a bold attitude that is nonetheless compatable with humility?

There are, naturally, too many answers to address them all, so I chose to pick a couple of examples.

1. Boldness isn't necessarily loudness. Oftentimes it's just a matter of standing up to be counted. There are greater and smaller examples that are all impressive to a degree. I used two examples:

a. Christine, a Catholic girl I knew in my university days. We were out with some other poli sci people, probably younger democrats, and one of them went off on a tirade about Christians. Christine kept her mouth closed during this tirade and everyone joined in the group-think bashing. Finally when all was a little quieter Christine said out loud to the original speaker "You know, I'm a Christian and I'm sorry that we get under your skin so much. If you have such deep-seated issues, then perhaps you'd like to talk to me about it in private so that I could understand you better." Conversation over! It was awesome, nobody said a word, and the vitriolic yammerings of the whole group were confronted by her simple, humble choice to be counted among the group that was being ridiculed.

b. The other story was from Fr. Tarazi about his time in Romania under the Communists. The Romanian Patriarch at the time decided that it was going to cause too much commotion for priests to wear cassocks and have long beards. They would be harassed in public, and it often led to an inability to conduct themselves peacefully or it interfered with their pastoral responsibilities. So, no cassocks in public. But for his monks the Patriarch had an entirely different ruling - they had to wear their cassocks at all times and to have beards! In other words, nobody pushes this guy around. It's like the holy equivalent to "bring it on". Such open boldness became a living proclamation, especially when the monks were spit on and roughed up. It showed that there was a power stronger than the false god of Communism. Again, boldness in humility.

2. Another part of being bold in our setting, especially as pastors and leaders, is to name sins and confront them in all of the exactness and particularity. We too often speak in broad generalities. Of course this has the benefit of making the statements universal - "be kind" sorts of things. But it has the side-effect of being easily twisted. It's a great deal more difficult to worm around thou shalt's and thou shalt not's than it is to re-shape "love thy neighbor" in our own image. We have to spell out what we mean, in our situation, by the broad platitudes that we spout. People have exact problems, with defined issues, and we need to see our pastoral duty as boldly calling forth these demons and exorcizing them.

I think many of us at seminary would be shocked to realize how clueless people actually are about what we do and don't consider sins, and often they don't see the practical extensions of our generalities unless we make them more explicite. Does the average fornicator realize that they're "not being chaste". I don't think so. Many would arge that they are, by the standards of their society. Does the businessman who's only giving 1% of his very large income realize that he's "being greedy"? Probably not... my guess is that he can rationalize the situation rather easily without some sort of barometer being given from outside his own schematics.

3. This all leads into sins of omission. I think here we get into a great deal of trouble. It isn't okay simply to avoid evil, Christians are called to do good. Avoiding the bad is only half of the equation, and arguably the less important half. God bless us if we occasionally committ an extra sin in order to do multiple works of good. Occasionaly if you try and help the unrighteous, you are sullied and influenced by the lesser side, but if you're living the gospel in the midst of it, then our shortcomings become the opportunity for grace.


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