On February 1,1970, I preached my first sermon at the Alma Evangelical United Brethren Church, and began my pastoral life, a journey that except for nine months in 1975, continued unbroken until I retired on July 1, 2015. When I read the statistics for pastoral burnout and exit from ministry, I am grateful to have lasted. Apparently most do not. I was blessed for most of that time with gracious and wonderful people for whom it was a joy to be their pastor. I still have the notes for the first sermon I preached, based on the text, "Unless The Lord builds the house, they labor in vain that build it." The Elizabethan English of the 1611 King James text is dated, but its truth is not.
While in seminary, I was challenged to review my sermons to see how the Gospel was presented in them. I was shocked at what I read. My professed theology is one of unmerited grace; God doing in Christ what we could not accomplish ourselves. But my sermons were little more than exhortations to grab those bootstraps and try harder. I have blessed the saints from that congregation many times for their patience with me. I was downright awful as a preacher. They saw it as their mission to help young pastors get started, and they did so with grace and kindness. Sadly, a few years ago that congregation closed its doors. They were the ones who gave me a chance, and I owe them much.
Yesterday I reflected on the humility God has drummed into me through thirty two years in the same small village congregation. Today, I was reviewing sermons from the past few years, mining them for use as teaching and preaching springboards during my upcoming mission trip. As I read through them, I marveled again at God's work in me. Those sermons weren't bad at all! Some of them were just plain good! In fact, they were better than I am, and fortunately, they were written for the most part in such a way that they are adaptable for future use. So tonight I am humbled and very thankful to be at a stage in life where I have decades of experience on which to draw, and opportunities to continue to put that experience to good use. The trick will be to not rest on past work, but instead to keep listening for a fresh word from God. The faith "once delivered to the saints" is old, but we cannot let the message grow old in us. Those sermons are driving me to prayer as never before, so that whatever I do may be the work of the Holy Spirit, and not of my puny scholarship. Only the former can transform lives, and that is the work I want to engage in for as long as I have breath.