Sunday Sermons

What could Hillary have been thinking?

The story has apparently been around a few days but I just saw it this morning, then checked it at the Washington Post website for verification. This week Hillary Clinton claimed that back in 1996 when, as First Lady, she flew into Bosnia, they were under hostile fire and the welcoming ceremony had to be called off. Everyone was told to put their heads down and run for the cars. However, Sunday morning’s Fox News with Chris Wallace re-played Hillary’s claims at the same time they ran the actual video from that 1996 event. The video showed a crowd was gathered to welcome her, little children were presenting her with flowers, everything was all peace and joy. People along on that trip have spoken out this week, remembering that it was nothing like what Hillary now says. The reality was as far from what she is now claiming as it’s possible to get.

I suppose she’s trying to show how she functions well under fire. Maybe trying to contrast her “courage under fire” toughness with Barack Obama’s lack of military experience. If that was her aim, she might want to back off, because if she wins the Democratic nomination, she’ll then have to try to match the record of American hero John McCain and that ain’t gonna happen.

You would think that by now she and her advisors would know that every public moment of her life has been caught on camera somewhere and it’s hazardous to claim anything they’re not sure she did.

Is there a sermon in here or what!

What if we all had to endure this kind of scrutiny and public airing of our “misspeakings.” Some newspapers–the Washington Post among them–have “fact checkers” on their websites. It’s a great help to the average citizen who listens to politicians and have no idea to what extent they’re being conned.

Back in 1976 when Jimmy Carter was running for president, he promised he would never lie to us. He said this country was looking for a president who was an honest as our people. And he said it with a straight face. Coming after Watergate and the lies of Nixon, the message resonated with the country and he was elected—but for a single term. It turns out that it’s almost impossible to keep that promise in politics.

What was it Churchill said, something to the effect that in wartime, truth is so precious it must be protected by a bodyguard of lies. Not that this is what Hillary was doing this week.

In fact, Hillary may wish she was in New Orleans yesterday.

Saturday, March 29, 2008, was Expungement Day in the Crescent City. The event, sponsored by the Orleans Parish public defender’s office and held at the Treme Community Center, drew some 400 people eager to get their criminal records cleaned up. You have some old charge still on your record, but it’s false or has been dealt with and should not be left on the records, you brought your evidence and made your case.

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The God of Great Things, Too

We celebrate the quality of our Lord by which He takes little things and achieves spectacular results. “Who has despised the day of small things?” said the prophet Zechariah (Zech. 4:10). Many a preacher has waxed eloquent (or as the kid said, “waxed an elephant”) on the way God uses the least, the lost, and the last to achieve the most, the best, and the first. Think of the widow’s mite, a baby in a manger, and a dozen nobodies chosen as apostles. The rod in Moses’ hand, the witness of a servant girl to a Syrian general, a little boy’s lunch of a few loaves and fishes–all bear eloquent testimony to the power of God to achieve much with little. A word here, a gift there, a deed.

Our Lord is a powerful God. As the gospel song puts it, “Little is much if God is in it.”

But there’s another side to this story. God is a great God who likes to do big things and when it pleases Him, to do them in grand ways. He made a universe whose size we are still trying to calculate. He created the galaxies, stars, suns, planets, oceans, and the egos of several people we could name. Big things.

God likes His children to dream big and is not complimented when the people He is counting on to serve Him in this world make small plans and expect little or no results.

Here’s an interesting story from the Old Testament. In the 8th century B.C., the king of Judah–Ahaz was his name and fear was his game–was shivering in his boots as he watched the kings of Aram and Israel surround Jerusalem with their fierce armies. God sent the prophet Isaiah out to calm Ahaz’ fears. “Take care and be calm,” he said. “Have no fear and do not be fainthearted because of these two stubs of smoldering firebrands…”

Eugene Peterson (“The Message”) puts it like this: “Don’t panic over these two burnt-out cases…they talk big and there’s nothing to them.”

Didn’t work. Ahaz needed something more than soothing words to settle his shattered nerves. So God raised the ante. “The Lord spoke again to Ahaz, saying, ‘Ask a sign for yourself from the Lord your God; make it deep as Sheol or high as heaven.'” (This is all in Isaiah 7.)

That’s quite a blank check the Lord handed the timid king. What would it take to stop your knees knocking and convince you that God is handling the matter, O king? Need a sign in the heavens? Just name it. Make it as big as you please.

True to character, Ahaz would not act decisively against the enemy nor would he boldly seize the offer God had made him. Fence-straddling was his spiritual gift. He said, “I will not ask, nor will I test the Lord!”

We’d like to help him with his theology and remind Ahaz that it’s not “testing” the Lord if God invites you to do it.

Well, the story goes on and gets better, but I’ll stop here. The point here is that God wanted big faith, decisive action, and a bold initiative out of his leader, and got none of it.

Now, move that scene over to your church. Your leader, the pastor, looks out his window–i.e., he observes the city where he lives, reads the paper, and watches the news–and feels outnumbered, overwhelmed, and outmatched. He wrings his hands, throws up his hands, and considers hiring some new hands. What is the church to do?

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Letter to a New Pastor

So, Jim, you’re leaving the comfortable nest and trying your wings. You have served well on our staff for these four years and now God has called you to a congregation where you will be the point man. The shepherd, the overseer, the leader. The one who blazes the trail, rallies the troops, sets the mood, coaches the team, and–let’s face it–gets the credit and takes the blame.

I hope you will not mind if I make a few points here which I intend only as an encouragement to you in this new ministry. Entire books have been written to beginning pastors, but you will not mind if I don’t attempt one here. Here are ten pointers, most of which I have learned the hard way, and have the scars to prove it.

1) Remember to say ‘we’ and ‘our,’ not ‘I’ and ‘my.’

When you are referring to a staff member, say “our minister of music” or “our minister of students.” It makes little difference to you, but a world of difference to him/her. As a former staffer, you of all people know this. The assistant on your staff may take direction from you and be accountable to you, but you can magnify their ministry and encourage their faithfulness by speaking to them and of them with the greatest respect.

2) Never claim any authority as the pastor.

Any time you tell someone you have authority, it lessens it. If you truly have the authority to do a thing, you may sit quietly by and listen to the controversy that surrounds you, knowing within yourself that when the moment of decision comes, you will make the call. You must be prepared to do just that.

You might recall, Jim, a meeting in my office a couple of years back when I cautioned you about using that word “authority.” It was just before I did the same thing with the two lay leaders who mistakenly thought they had some too. Serving the Lord and leading His church are servant jobs, not positions of authority. Slaves have no authority other than to help and bless and give and suffer. They take orders from the Master or the Master’s representative.

So, if someone in the church gives you authority over them–and that’s the only kind you and I have in leading a church–it is their gift to us. We should wear it lightly, use it sparingly, and try not to let the recipient know they just saw it on display.

3) Learn to listen.

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What it Takes to Become a Shepherd

My new friend Barry of West Virginia checked in the other night. He’s planning to be a pastor, he said, and while surfing the net in search of ideas, inspiration, and such, he found our website. He said, “I read it from 8 o’clock that morning until 5 o’clock that afternoon.”

I told him he holds the world record.

Wednesday of last week, our pastors’ group numbered only about 15, so we pulled two tables together and got our coffee and doughnuts and visited. Eventually, I said, “Let’s start with Eddie here, and go around the table. Introduce yourself–some of you don’t know the others–and tell something the Lord has done for you recently. Not 38 years ago, if you don’t mind.”

I had no idea this would be the agenda for the next 90 minutes.

Ann: “We lost 12,000 dollars—and then found it lying in the road in the basket where it had fallen off the car. It was untouched. The Lord protected us.”

Lawrence: “I had a series of strokes. God brought me through them.”

Marc: “I went through a time of serious depression. It was affecting my home and my church, everything. Even my wife said my sermons were boring. Finally, at a spiritual retreat, I recovered my closeness with the Lord and my energy for Him.”

Manuel told how one day on the job his body had taken 37,000 volts of electricity. “That’s why I have an artificial hand and foot,” he said. “I’m blessed to be alive and serving God.”

Jeff: “While we were evacuated from Katrina, I decided to try to find my son. Some 18 years ago, I walked out on his unwed mother and after I came to the Lord, I’ve felt so bad about that. I had tried over the years to locate him. I walked into a police station in the town where we used to live and identified myself, and told them what I was attempting to do. They arrested me on the spot.”

He went on to explain how his name was found on the list of deadbeat fathers, and he was kept in jail for two nights while he stayed on the phone, trying to raise $18,000. Eventually, he was reunited with his son. He explained what had happened and asked his forgiveness. “My son is down here right now,” he said, “living with us. He is such a fine young man.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

Jeff pointed out how that as a pastor, he wants to be able to address this issue–dads who need to find the children they have fathered and do the right thing–and so had to go through this himself so he would have the integrity to call them to own up to their responsibilities.

Other pastors around the table had their stories of what the Lord was doing or had done in their lives. Then, it was Bobby’s turn.

“Well,” he said, “I’ve never lost $12,000. I’ve always been in good health and was never depressed. I’ve never had strokes or been struck by lightning. I’ve never fathered a child out of wedlock…”

A preacher on the other side of the table said, “And you call yourself a pastor!”

We laughed the rest of the morning at that.

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A Prayer for Cleansing

“Father, hear my prayer. There is a need in my heart from the soil in my soul. Please cleanse me of all my sin.

Take away everything in me that does not confess Thee as my Lord, tha does not have Thy name on it, that is resistant to Thy Spirit, and unworthy of Thee.

Remove from me all attitudes and opinions and convictions that do not originate from Thee and conform to Thy will and every desire and motive and ambition in conflict with Thy purpose. Take away anything that runs and hides when You enter, that laughs when I believe, that squirms when I pray, and fears when I trust.

Whatever in me that does not give Thee joy, make Thee proud, or honor Thy name, I hereby give my permission for it to be gone.

Anything that holds me back, weights me down, cheapens my praise, dampens Thy fire within me, and threatens my future effectiveness, please remove.

By the precious blood of Jesus, purge my iniquity.

In the matchless name of Jesus, make me clean.

For the wonderful sake of Jesus, draw me to Thee.

Make me whole and holy and wholesome.

Make me right and upright and righteous.

Give me a heart that wants only to do Thy will, that answers only to Thy call, and serves only to hear Thy ‘well done, good and faithful servant.’

Amen.”

“We do not know how to pray as we should,” admitted the great Apostle Paul. We may say with confidence that if he didn’t, it’s a sure bet that the rest of us don’t either. And yet prayer to the Savior is our lifeline in this dangerous world. As the Apostle Peter watched the multitudes drifting away from Jesus because of His tough teachings, he confessed, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.”

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Of Reading Many Books There is No End

The title is actually a corruption of Ecclesiastes 12:12 wherein “the preacher,” whoever that was–the implication is that he is Solomon, but I wonder–said, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

We beg to differ. But of course, we have access to a much greater variety of books than even Solomon did.

One of my friends begins our too-infrequent visits with, “What books are you reading?” and another with, “What book is by your bedside at this moment?”

My wife laughs at that last question, because for me, it’s not “book,” but “books.” Usually a pile of them. Some I read, some I started on and stopped, and often I’m somewhere in the midst of three or four which I fully intend to finish.

The ones by my bed at the moment are mostly World War II era books. I don’t get very far at night before sleep beckons. I’m halfway through “You Must Remember This: The Filming of Casablanca.” I checked it out of the Jefferson Parish Library, one of my favorite places. “Casablanca” is one of my favorite movies.

The last book I finished was–ready for this?–Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” I know, I know, it’s a “woman’s book.” Here’s how it happened that I came to read it.

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LEADERSHIP LESSON NO. 52–“Never Hesitate to Challenge People to Greatness.”

Chuck Kelley, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, said recently, “If we were to get up a trip to Paris and really push it, we might get a half dozen students to go with us. However, if we announced a mission trip to Afghanistan and told the students they had to buy their own flak jackets, we’d have to turn some away. Today’s students respond to a great challenge.”

Abraham Lincoln attended church with a friend in Springfield. Afterwards, the friend asked the future president what he thought of the message. “It was all right,” he said, “but it was not a great sermon.” Asked what made him say that, Lincoln said, “The pastor said many fine things, but he did not ask us to do a great thing.”

Joe Brown, long-time pastor of Charlotte’s Hickory Grove Baptist Church, returned from a mission trip to a difficult area of the world and shared this experience with his congregation.

“At ‘The Edge’ they have an underground church…. They meet on different nights, and when they reach the number of 10 or 12, they split the church because it causes too much attention.”

“They have a man…. He’s not the pastor. He’s not a teacher. He’s an usher. He volunteers to go down into the center of the city, and he stands there. The members of his church will ride down there and he’ll tell them where they’re meeting and when they’re meeting, because the telephone lines are monitored…. There was such a man in this city, and the government found out about him. They arrested him. He lost his job. When he lost his job, he lost his housing. He lost his medical benefits. He lost everything he had. He was beaten and put into prison.”

“Another man stepped forward and took the job. And he was turned in, and he was beaten and put into prison and lost everything he had.”

“Someone traveling with us looked at the house-church pastor and said, ‘I suppose you have great difficulty in filling that job.'”

“He said, ‘Oh no, we don’t have difficulty in filling that job. We have a waiting list.'”

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Helping Mark With His Easter Sermon

“Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb.” (John 20:1)

Mark is a young pastor in his first church, and is still laboring under the back-breaking, death-defying habit of getting up on Monday morning and deciding what he will preach the following Sunday. That’s why today, Monday before Easter, when I threw out my weekly question to him and the other two pastors–Jim and Carl–he had only a partial answer.

“I knew you were going to ask that,” he laughed. I had said, “What are you preaching this Sunday?” This is the one Sunday of the year that almost no preacher varies from the subject on everyone’s mind, the resurrection of Jesus. But Scripture has so much to say on the subject that a pastor can pick a text and head out in a hundred directions.

Mark said, “All I have is an idea. In Easter, we have the open tomb, right? Well, it seems to me that that’s not all that was opened on Easter Sunday morning.” He paused and said, “I haven’t figured out what, but I know there has to be an answer to that!”

I said, “All right, guys. We have our assignment. Mark wants our help with this sermon.”

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(The Easter sermon I’m working on….)

I told a friend once that if I have gone to seed on anything in Christian theology, it’s the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I’m about to qualify that. As essential an element in the Christian faith as it is, the resurrection of our Lord did not end the fears, settle the nerves, conquer the phobias, or break the chains with which the early disciples were bound. It took one thing more.

To be sure, when the Lord Jesus Christ walked out of that garden tomb on the first Easter Sunday morning, it settled a lot of issues. His identity was forever established. His claims were solidly substantiated. His promises had just received the guarantee of Heaven.

When Jesus arose victorious from the grave, His enemies were routed. His opponents were silenced (or should have been, had they been men of even a little integrity). His executioners were shamed. A bamboozled Satan and his imps were beside themselves with rage.

The resurrection of Jesus answers our questions, excites our hopes, and escalates our anticipation. It draws us back to the Scripture, back to the Church, and back to a new reality.

No wonder the disciples’ later preaching centered on the single key ingredient of belief in Jesus’ return from the grave as an essential element of saving faith. “If you confess with your mouth Jesus Christ as Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9)

Settle that–that Jesus actually died on that cross, that He lay in that grave from Friday afternoon until Sunday morning, then walked out whole and healthy–and so many things fall into place.

Everything, that is, except one. And we see it in the Lord’s disciples, as recorded in John 20.

“So when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.'” (John 20:19)

Did you see that? They’ve locked the doors out of fear of the people who executed Jesus.

All right, that’s to be expected I suppose. At this point, the resurrection of their Lord was still just a rumor to most of them. But that should change now that He’s present with them, right? I mean, they see Him, touch Him, and know He’s alive. Everything should have changed for them at that moment. But did it?

“After eight days, His disciples were again inside…. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst and said, ‘Peace be with you.'” (John 20:26)

Pause for a moment here. The Greek word translated “shut” is “kleio,” which means “shut, lock, bar.” It is in the perfect passive participle in both verses 19 and 26 and means “locked tight.” The disciples have shut the door and drawn a bar across it from the inside.

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New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary

The annual meeting of the NOBTS Foundation Board was held this weekend–supper Friday night at the Plimsoll Club on the 30th floor of the World Trade Center at the foot of Canal Street, and business session Saturday morning on campus at the Leavell Center. The foundation is composed of more than 70 ministers and laypersons who have gone the second mile in showing their support of the seminary. Banker Gordon Campbell of St. Petersburg, Florida, our president for the past year, presided. It was a time of fellowship and inspiration, but mostly getting updates on the seminary. Another banker, Tom Callicut, member of FBC-NO and all-around good guy, is the incoming president.

Because of the strategic importance of NOBTS to this city (i.e., to our residents, our churches, and the members of our congregations) and because so many of the readers of this blog have ties to New Orleans particularly through the seminary, I’m filing a brief version of the meeting Saturday morning.

1. The seminary campus looks radiant. It’s loveliest of all in New Orleans’ springtime. Everything has been either newly built or rebuilt, so there is nothing looking old or shoddy on this campus (other than a professor or two, but John Gibson and Charlie Ray are doing the best they can!).

2. The enrollment is healthy. Some 3,600 students are enrolled in classes, with 45 percent on campus and 55 percent at the various off-campus centers (Atlanta, Orlando, etc.). This enrollment ranks in the top five of all the years since the founding of NOBTS in 1917.

3. The five stages which our seminary has been/will be working since August 29, 2005, are: Crisis (figuring out how to survive immediately following the hurricane), Recovery (restarting normal operations), Challenge (meeting the new situations head-on and adapting to the new realities; we’re in this stage right now), Opportunities (Trying to figure out what we learned and take advantage of the lessons), and Future (planning a longterm strategy for some 8 to 10 years out).

4. The seminary’s recovery costs from Katrina will end up being some $75 million. If that sounds terrible–and it does–consider that two universities not far from our campus suffered in the hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. Insurance reimbursements came to an encouraging $33 million-plus. Southern Baptist gifts to the seminary (from various entities of the denomination, churches, and individual Baptists) passed $12 million. The State of Louisiana gave each institution of higher learning $1,951,000 to help pay faculty salaries during the crisis.

No money was received from FEMA or the Bush-Clinton Katrina fund. “We have a long-standing tradition of separation of church and state,” President Chuck Kelley reminded foundation members.

5. What are the greatest needs the seminary has at the moment? Dr. Kelley gave these answers:

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