I prepared this sermon for the ‘preaching in’ of Jim Teasdale it explains my understanding of the ministry and why I have stuck with it for nearly 30 years…
‘The Ways of the Lord’
My uncle was a joiner, a carpenter, and he was very, very good at his job, he made it look easy. I used to love watching him work. Making a staircase, for example, the wood was measured and was cut straight and true. The joints were chiselled out and fitted precisely and when he used a plane it seemed to take just a few graceful strokes to make the beam smooth and square. He never had to go back over things again everything just seemed to fall into place. As I watched him it became apparent that though he had mastered all the skills of his trade the basic skill that underlay all others was his ability to measure things precisely and then transfer the measurements to a piece of wood. If he did not measure exactly he would have been working against himself always having to repeat jobs and make minor adjustments here and there.
The ministry is made up of many skills. It is essential that a minister is able to understand a passage of scripture, know the background identify the major truths so that they can make the Psalm, say, live for the congregation. But the greatest exposition will be in vain if last week’s Session or Board meetings has been handled so ineptly that members of the congregation are sitting seething so that they cannot hear. To teaching and leadership skills must be added pastoral skills helping people at critical moments in their lives. Then one must also be able to communicate with children; the list seems to go on and on. But I have been asking myself is there something a minister must do or be underneath all these other skills, just like my uncle’s skill in measuring underlay his skills as a joiner?
In Psalm 51 v13 the Psalmist testifies that it was his experience of God’s unfailing love, His loving kindness that enabled his to teach in such a way that men and women were brought back to God. God’s loving kindness is quite extraordinary.
Way back at the beginning of her history as the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt. A Pharaoh came to the throne who did not remember Joseph and made their lives all but unbearable. But God did not forget His people, in loving kindness He remembered them and raised up Moses who led them to freedom.
In Psalm 51 the Psalmist confesses that he is blood-guilty. This seems to infer that he had done something so grievous that there was no sacrifice, no prayer that could be offered by a priest in the Temple to atone for the wrong he had done. He was so saturated in guilt he was beyond the help of man he would have to atone for his with his own blood. He confesses earlier in the Psalm that his guilt means that God should cast him away forever. He is utterly without hope. But He remembers God’s loving kindness and asks that God would have mercy on him according to his unfailing love. He is praying saying to God, ‘I know the wrong I have done, there is no prayer I can offer there is no sacrifice great enough to put right the wrong I have done and all that I have done is thoroughly obnoxious to you. But you have promised never ever to let me down and to help me in my darkest hour. That hour has come; have mercy upon me according to your unfailing love.’
The Psalmist makes the most staggering discovery anyone can ever make God is greater than human sin. He can deal with it.
We see this unfailing love at its zenith as Peter denies Jesus for the third time with curses: ‘I do not know Him and I hope He rots in hell.’ Jesus looks out of the window of the High Priest’s house and does not condemn but goes to the cross for Peter.
It is my conviction that anyone called to teach the ways of God must reflect in some small measure this love; he or she is to be friend who is always, always there.
There is a wonderful series of short stories called the World of Don Camillo by Giovanni Guareshi. Don Camillo is a priest who serves in a small village of the Po Valley in the North of Italy between. One terrible week-end a once in a lifetime storm hits the valley and the Po cannot contain the flood water, the river breaks its banks and great deluge flows down the valley. The villagers take to the hills and on the Sunday morning they stand and watch as the little tributary their village stands on becomes a raging torrent and they stand and watch as their homes and farms and all their possessions are washed away. They are in despair and vow never to retorn to the valley again, they speak of making a new life in the city.
But Don Camillo has remained at his post and at 11.am when the flood is at its height he fights through the water and rings the church bell summoning the villagers to worship. He struggles through the water and stands in his pulpit and preaches to the rising tide of water. He then struggles back to the bell tower to summon the people to the celebration of mass.
The villagers stand on the hillside and they hear the bell and they know that don Camillo is in his church and they begin to think that maybe all is not lost after all; the essential things in life, their God, their salvation cannot be swept away by a flood, they find a rock on which they find hope and begin to rebuild.
One Sunday afternoon the phone went in the Manse. It was Jean, one of the lovely ladies in our congregation. I had been half expecting the phone call her daughter was in hospital expecting her second baby. But it was not a joyous laughter I heard but deep sobbing. The baby had been still born. I rushed to the hospital stopping only to take with me the little silver bowl we used the hold the water when we baptised babies in the church. I spent a while talking to the family, to the mum who had lost the baby and then went to the hospital chapel and held the dead baby in my arms and baptised him.
By this time Tom, the baby’s grandfather had had to go home to feed their dog, so as I said good bye to the family I thought I had better and go and see Tom again before I went home. I spent maybe an hour chatting to him about absolutely nothing at all.
The evening before the funeral of the child I went to see Tom and Jean again. By this time they had regained their composure, but Tom told me that if I had not gone to see him that afternoon he does not know what he would have done he may have flipped completely. But I said Tom I never said anything I talked about nothing at all, he said ‘But you were there.’
It has taken me a long time to begin to understand that. But when people find their world has collapsed around them they need a friend whom they can rely upon, someone is familiar and unthreatening someone who is coping when they aren’t. This is what the elder the minister can do, be a friend who is always, always there.
But a minister must also open new worlds to people, the wonderful world of the God of the Bible. But that too has to be done in the context of loving kindness.
Many years ago I was invited to preach at a Communion Season in a parish over on the West Coast. There are countless services over the week end and I was royally entertained between the services. One couple who provided lunch were retired teachers and as we journeyed to the next service I remarked to the minister how gracious and kind they were. He turned a funny colour and smoke came from his nostrils. ‘Gracious!’ he said; they were the most difficult couple he ever had to deal with. They used to come to church and complain to each other in a loud voice all through the service. The choice of hymns was wrong, the readings were too difficult, the children’s address absurd and that was before they started on their running commentary on his sermon. He could hear them and the whole congregation could hear. He got so angry and frustrated he prayed, ‘Lord it is them or me, either they go or I go.’
Then through the post came a copy of a congregational newsletter. In this letter the minister wrote that love is not a feeling it is something you do. So this chap prayed, ‘Lord I certainly don’t feel love for this couple but how can I show love.’ The only thing he could think of was the old couple stayed a distance from church and needed a lift on a Sunday, so he volunteered. For a while it was absurd, he gave them a lift to church they complained all the way through the service and he gave them a lift home again only to repeat the exercise at the evening service. But over the weeks and months they became friendly and he was able to explain why he did things the way they did and for the old couple the whole world of grace began to open up, they never knew before just how rich and wonderful the teaching of the Bible is. But this chap had to become grace in order to teach grace. When he was praying ‘It’s them or me’ was the church really just a theatre where he exercised his ministry? With the prayer ‘How can I show your love?’ Was he becoming a minister more like Jesus who did not come to be served but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many?
Please do not misunderstand me, I am not saying that a minister should just be some genial inoffensive person, any more than my uncle just marked off measurements on pieces of wood; I remember sweat pouring off him as he used the saw, plane, chisel and hammer.
I have given my life to expository preaching and it is the greatest, most thrilling adventure one could ever embark on. There is nothing greater than exploring the character and being of the God of the Bible. Many years ago I was preaching on the letter of James; in that little letter the Apostle exhorts his congregation to stand firm for Christ amid all the storms of life, I remember saying hold on to the rock, hold on to Christ because when you hold on to the Rock the storm does not matter you are safe. The coming week I had to go out and visit a lady, she had been out shopping and came home and found her husband dead at the bottom of the stair. Her husband was a remarkably able man, a man you could not help but love and admire. I said to her ‘How awful to find him like that.’ She said ‘I just remembered what you said about holding on to the rock no matter the storm, no matter the height of the waves and I prayed I found all the strength I needed.’ That is the power of the Gospel. Exposition is mighty and wonderful. Leadership skills, pastoral skills all have to be mastered but what makes everything come together is loving kindness.
Finally enjoy being loved with loving kindness and seek it for yourself.
You’ll not believe this, and I do not want to shock you but believe it or not ministers make mistakes. Even more staggering I have made mistakes!
For a while, when I was in the Highlands, I took it into my head to stop wearing a dog collar, my wife advised against but I knew better. As you can imagine I looked rather fetching in my range of fashion shirts and spectacularly coloured ties.
Then one morning I was just taking my golf clubs out of the car when Walter our Session Clerk drove up to the Manse. He went into the boot and took out a baking tray and on the tray was two freshly caught trout, beautifully filleted with a dusting of salt and pepper ready to be put under the grill. ‘I was fishing last night’ he said ‘and thought you would like a trout for your tea.’ He was great friend and he came in and we talked about my golf and his fishing, then he excused himself and said it was time for lunch. As I opened the front door he said, ‘We are a conservative lot and we miss the dog collar, it’s a pity folk cannot hear the Gospel for what’s missing from around your neck.’
Such loving kindness is irresistible.
The minister, the elder, the Christian should live to reflect the loving kindness of their Saviour, a friend who is always, always, always there.