The Best Sermon Material

One of the reasons I look forward to breakfasts in hotels is the free copies of USA Today. Okay, it’s not like I couldn’t purchase my own subscription or pick the occasional copy up at the newsstand. But the reality is I don’t do it. So, the only time I read this paper is when I’m out of town.

That means, I’ll be reading it every day for two weeks. One week on a vacation trip with my sons in the Gettysburg PA area, followed by a week in Louisville for the Southern Baptist Convention.

From the standpoint of a minister–and I pastored churches over 40 years and will always think of myself as a pastor–what USA Today does best for me is to provoke my thinking.

This morning, for instance….

–President Obama is staying out of the Iranian election crisis. Anything he says will be used against him by one side or the other. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton likewise is saying very little and only positive things, expressing concern and wishing the Iranians well.

Pastors know, or learn the hard way, it is not necessary to take a vocal position on every issue in town. Sometimes you have bigger fish to fry, larger concerns which keep you on course and prevent you from taking every detour that presents itself.

–Article: “Where were the regulators when banks were failing?”

–Article: “Where were the regulators when banks were failing?” The cartoon shows a huge piggy bank, representing the banks, and alongside it, a fellow in a suit is napping. The article points out that the federal regulators are as much to blame for the current economic mess as the people who run the banks. “In some cases (they) actively helped the banks hide their growing problems.”

Pastors learn–the right way or the hard way–of their accountability to the congregation to make sure the church office is faithful with the tithes and offerings flowing in through the Sunday services. I think of my friend J.W. who was a wonderful and faithful pastor. When it was discovered that the church secretary was embezzling money from the bank account, she was fired and arrested, but the leadership turned on J. W. As the pastor, they said, he was the ultimate authority and responsible to make sure the employees do their work faithfully. They pressured him to resign, which he did. It felt unfair to him, but illustrates an unpopular fact of the ministry: the pastor is the leader and in one way or the other, all reins of leadership end up in his hands.

–“Time can help heal New Orleans’ wounds” is an article concerning a bit of music written and performed by Josh Charles. All the proceeds coming from people downloading it at a dollar a pop go to a rebuilding organization in my city. To pull this off, BMI the performing rights group, is urging 4200 radio programmers to run the song. And is waiving its 30 percent royalty.

Every little bit helps. The executive director of the New Orleans ministry that will receive the money said, “We will use the song’s proceeds to continue preserving, protecting, and rebuilding the city’s homes and neighborhoods.”

–The most inspiring thing in today’s (June 16, 2009)USA Today is a full-page article in the sports section on Enrique Oliu who is the Spanish language broadcaster for the Tampa Rays baseball team. What makes this special is that Oliu is blind.

You read that right. Imagine now, he’s calling a baseball game. He does have a partner in the booth with him, but people who listen say you’d never know he was sightless from his insights and comments. Oliu himself credits his parents for so much in his life.

“My father said, ‘I don’t want to hear any excuses,’ and I don’t give any.”

“My parents told me I had to outwork people because I was behind the 8-ball. They said it wasn’t good enough to be just as good.”

“This is something my parents and teachers at the blind school said. You had to be better.”

Looking for an excuse? Enrique Oliu has one, but refuses to cash it in. Rick Warren says, “Blame is spelled B-lame.” Vance Havner used to say, “An excuse is the skin of a reason stuffed with a lie.”

I guarantee you there are people all around us today who think they will someday stand before God and offer up a whole litany of excuses as to why they were not faithful. But it won’t work. I suggest such blamesters check out the first several chapters of Romans and notice how many times Paul speaks of people who are “without excuse.”

–Still in the sports section. An article on the Lakers’ NBA championship is headed: “Agony in ’08, ecstasy in ’09.” It reads, “After being humiliated a year ago…by the Boston Celtics in the deciding game of the Finals, the Lakers victory was especially sweet.”

“Last June, the Lakers were summarily vanquished in Beantown, leaving the city under a hailstorm of rocks.” “It was rough.” “The plane ride (back home last year) was long, arduous, painful, but I think it’s definitely what set this year in motion.”

You’d think fans–like the Boston fans last year–would know that rudeness to the team you just beat ends up fueling their desire for vengeance. A thousand times better to show kindness to the team you just whipped. My dad used to say, ” Be nice to the people you just beat. You’ve already shown you’re better than they are. You no longer have anything to prove.”

But getting fans to grow up and act mature, I know, I know. That’s asking a lot.

The other morning, chatting with the hotel desk clerk in Winchester, Virginia, I learned she is from England. Having been there only once, and enjoying it so much I remember every detail of the visit even though it was nearly 30 years back, I told her of a humorous sign I spotted on the highway.

“A restaurant had a large sign out front that read ‘No Football Coaches Allowed.'” I told her I knew what it meant–football is soccer and coaches were buses–that it meant the restaurant did not want a busload of rowdy soccer fans coming in. But that in America, the words would convey an entirely different message.

What is it they say about the USA and England, that we’re two people divided by a common language?

Someone–was it Phillips Brooks? I forget–used to say the pastor should enter the pulpit with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. The point of course is not to preach current events, but to relate the eternal truths of God’s Word to the happenings all around us each day.

In seminary over 40 years ago, I was most impressed that my Old Testament and Hebrew professor, George Harrison, would begin his class period with prayer. In that prayer, he would often mention what the city council was doing today or an issue Congress was facing. I was most impressed that he kept up with such events and prayed for these leaders.

You can see, I’ve had a good role model.