Front-Page Sermons

Cruising down the bayous of lower St. Bernard Parish, Jason Melerine had his crab boat up to 20 mph. Suddenly the vessel caught a piece of sunken hurricane debris, jerking the outboard motor off and giving Jason and his helper the jolt of their lives.

A front-page article in today’s Times-Picayune says there are 6,000 underwater snags in the waterways of our part of the world, remnants from August 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.

It’s a sermon illustration in the making.

The other headline that catches the attention of readers is part of the continuing saga of Michael Jackson’s doctor’s legal predicament. “Coroner: Array of drugs killed Jackson.”

Imagine the prestige MJ’s doctor–Conrad Murray, cardiologist from Las Vegas–must have sported when potential patients learned who his celebrity client was. Wow. Doubtless he had a long waiting list of people wanting him as their doctor. Anything to be that close to their favorite celeb. I expect there’s something inside all of us who are insecure about going to doctors in the first place that says, “If he’s Michael Jackson’s doctor, he has to be the best!”

Preachers, this one has your name all over it.

First, the snags thing.

When we first got back into St. Bernard Parish following Katrina in mid-October 2005, I recall seeing boats standing on end out of the bayous and marshlands. Debris was everywhere. A car there, a truck out here. The top of a house could be seen in that lake, a shed in this bayou.

Surprisingly, a lot of it still lies there. Fishermen say when they hit a snag, they write down the GPS numbers and try to avoid it the next time. When a net gets caught on something under the water, there is no recourse but to cut the net and leave it there, adding to the underwater debris. Nets cost $1200 each.

There’s a valuable lesson here.

I was leading a business meeting at the church where I was the new pastor. We were discussing bringing on board a new assistant minister. Everything was in order, the candidate was over qualified if anything, and neither I nor our leadership saw any problem. Suddenly, a member stood to his feet and exploded with ugliness. He was hostile about this matter, dead certain the candidate was a disaster in the making, and he was opposed to the recommendation.

I was stunned. “Where did all this venom come from?” I wondered.

Like Jason Melerine, I had been blissfully cruising along when my boat ran across an underwater snag.

Two years earlier, that church had gone through a major crisis resulting in a severing of friendships, the firing of the pastor, hundreds leaving the church, and the evangelistic ministries grinding to a dead halt.

A hurricane had blown through our church and savaged it. Wreckage was everywhere in the hearts and souls of members and much of it had not been identified or dealt with or cleaned up.

Storm debris lay just beneath the surface, waiting for an unsuspecting pastor or friend to come by. I was the victim.

Hurt feelings, anger, guilt, resentment, jealousies, suspicion. They lie low like a trap. Someone cruises by, unsuspecting, oblivious. He wonders what hit him.

In the case of the debris in our bayous and wetlands, local authorities have had to meticulously survey each location and file a report. FEMA will pay for the removal, overseen by the Coast Guard.

Before snags can be removed, someone has to find them and identify them.

It’s hard work and it’s expensive. Immediately after the hurricane, FEMA says it spent $170 million in emergency cleanup. For these surveys and debris removal, $20 million will be required.

Here’s a typical way it happens in a church.

A few leaders of a church decide now is the time to remove the pastor. The fact that he is well-loved and highly respected by most in the church matters little; they will have their way. As a deacon said to me once, “People think it takes a majority to remove a preacher. The truth is it only takes a handful of members who are determined.” He’s right.

One wonders if they know the real cost for their action. Even if the pastor is ill-suited to that church or not as effective as they would like, removing him forcibly will cost a great deal in the church’s witness in the community, in the impediment to their ministries, in relationships of people, in that pastor’s future pastorates, and, yes, in the honor and glory of Christ.

Long after the pastor has gone and is a dim memory, when the new preacher is in place and serving well, underwater snags will be lurking out there in homes, in relationships, in the congregation. Snags have a long shelf life, too.

There is no better storm debris removal than a person confessing his wrongs to his neighbor and each one forgiving the other.

Second, the celebrity doctor.

What a heady feeling Dr. Murray must have experienced at first. “I’m Michael Jackson’s pastor! Imagine that! The king of pop follows my orders. The family must really be proud of me. My colleagues envy me. My bank account runneth over.”

A deadly temptation, as it turned out.

Pastors often encounter something similar. “The mayor is a member of my church.” The police chief. The quarterback for the Saints. The manager of the Zephyrs. A movie star.

I once had Jay Robinson, Hollywood movie star (he played Nero in “The Robe,” a blockbuster movie of the 1950’s), to visit the church I pastored and give his Christian testimony. Over supper, I chatted with him and his wife about the Christian community in Hollywood. They belonged to the Presbyterian church where Lloyd John Ogilvie, later chaplain of the U.S. Senate, was pastor. They spoke of seeing Mr. and Mrs. Gregory Peck and others in church.

I was an impressed as Hannah Parker was last week when she visited backstage with the Jonas Brothers at the New Orleans Arena.

I confess to have asked Nashville pastors if any Grand Ol’ Opry people are in their congregations.

Anything wrong with having a celeb in the congregation? Not a thing.

The problem comes when a pastor is too awestruck by their star power. He loses his objectivity, tailors his message for them (or around their particular idiosyncracies), and if asked, caters to them in unbecoming ways. He fawns over them, feels honored by their smile, and falls all over himself to introduce them to his colleagues in the ministry.

All of it most unbecoming.

God is not honored at all. Better the pastor would be blind to the celebrityness of anyone and everyone in the audience. Better he treat everyone the same, the lowliest as a celebrity and the star as just one of the crowd.

It’s not a new problem. In the first century, it looked like this:

“My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.

“For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes,

“and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ and you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,’

“have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil motives?

“Listen, my beloved brethren, did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?

“But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court?”

“If you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” (James 2:1-6,9)

Drew Brees, quarterback of the Saints, we want you in our church. Harrison Ford, you will be welcome in a church wherever you live next Sunday. Madonna, Britney, Barbra, Angelina–come to church; you’ll be welcomed.

But don’t expect a welcome any different from the one we give to the Wal-Mart Associate or the new hire at the service station down the street. You’ll be our honored guest. The same way they are.

Truth be known, that’s how most honest-to-goodness celebrities want it to be when they go to church.

The problem is that the most star-struck people in town are often the preachers.

One more reason to pray for the pastor. One of these days he’s going to look out at the congregation and ask himself, “Is that Denzel Washington in the balcony?” And if he’s not careful, he will lose his cool and forget who he is and nothing good will happen after that.

Pray he’ll be ready when that moment comes.

4 thoughts on “Front-Page Sermons

  1. Max Lucado tells the story of David Robinson, the superstar center for the San Antonio Spurs, coming to his church one Sunday. The people of his church went wild over this tall, handsome celebrity. Meanwhile, Lucado noticed a poorly dressed man, perhaps homeless, who had wandered in. No one greeted this man. Who do you think Jesus would rather us reach out to? And you are right, Joe, the celebs themselves would rather not be “noticed.”

    One Sunday, I looked out into the audience and recognized the star quarterback for the University of Houston (my alma mater). I gulped, thought to myself, “I hope you brought your A game, preacher” and proceeded. Afterward, I met the young man, and he was gracious and warm. I found myself that afternoon fantasizing about what it would be like if he were to join our church. He has not come back, and I am a bit embarrassed at myself.

  2. Making visitors feel welcome

    We always want our church to be friendly and welcome visitors, regardless of their status in life. Unfortunately, we don

  3. I guess you hit a nerve with me.

    Our church was considered to be a very friendly church by many people. I had to question that one Sunday. My sister and her husband came and visited the 8:15 service. They were working at our camp doing volunteer work. They were dressed neat and clean. They just had on everyday clothes, which was what many of our people wore also. When the greeting time came, I had not mentioned that my sister and her husband were in the service. I guess I should have. I asked them as we ate lunch,

  4. Related topic: In every church I’ve pastored, from 65 – 350 attendance, it gripes me that older members don’t know the younger ones. In nominating committees, for example, I’ve suggested some younger person 30’s maybe)and everyone asks who they are. At Wednesday night suppers, everybody sits with the same group. Retired, I now try to practice what I’ve preached and go out of my way to sit with younger folks and different folks. We need laymen who will do that.

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