Store-Bought Sermons

My weekend emails regularly contain homiletical offers, including:

  • Sermon for tomorrow—immediate access!
  • Sermon for this Sunday. Reliable. Professional. Easy.
  • Sermons freshly written for the Pentecost season.
  • Sermons professionally written for every Sunday.

Based on the subject lines, a red-letter market thrives for preachers interested in purchasing Saturday Night Special Sermons.

In full disclosure, I often borrow from others in sermon preparation. After 2,000 years of Christendom, no one achieves originality. Dr. Fred Craddock, who taught homiletics at Candler School of Theology, warned, “He who steals from me steals twice.” And Fred probably got that statement from someone else!

However, preaching store-bought sermons as homemade homilies smacks of intellectual dishonesty and spiritual slothfulness. Like Esau, clergy that settle for “reliable, professional, and easy” sermons trade their birthright for porridge.

Preachers worth their salt labor over proclaiming the Gospel in a unique time and place to a particular people and parish. The integration of Word and World requires a pastor to stand with one foot in the sanctuary and another in the street.

Like Jacob at the Jabbok, faithful ministers wrestle with the Lord and struggle with the text. We limp away from the encounter, sharing with others our hard-won experience.

A homemade homily prepared with love and preached with faithfulness may not be “professionally written,” but it inspires the hearts, minds, and souls of God’s saints.

First Words

This week I am celebrating my fourth anniversary as the senior pastor of Northside Church. I give thanks to God for the opportunity to serve the congregation and community. Today I am sharing the blog that I wrote the week prior to my very first Sunday at NSC.

First words are important.

After all, well begun is half done. A carefully-crafted opening provides a proper introduction to an author’s thoughts. Therefore, I spend an inordinate amount of time on the first word, sentence, paragraph, and page.

Some days the words flow like a river’s rapids. Other days the syllables ooze like molasses in January. I find myself staring at the blinking cursor on the computer screen, wondering why the inventor didn’t call it a CURSER!

First words are difficult because an author must CHOOSE. Out of an infinite number of beginnings, there can only be ONE first word, sentence, and paragraph.

This Sunday I will preach my first sermon as the new senior pastor at Northside United Methodist Church in Atlanta. Like Jacob at the Jabbok ford, God and I have wrestled over what to say . . . and what not to say . . . and how to say it. After all, first words are important because they form first impressions.

Over the past weeks, those adolescent first-day-at-school-anxieties have welled up inside. Will they like me? Will the other children play with me? Can I get my locker open? Where’s the bathrooms? What if I get lost?

Time and again the Holy Spirit whispers in my soul, “Peace, be still.” Then I remember that the LORD is the First and Last, the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. All of life occurs within the context of God’s providential grace.

God always has the first word . . . and God always has the last word. So Psalm 19:14 has become my prayer for the first word of the first sermon on a first Sunday:

May the words of my mouth

and the meditations of my heart

Be acceptable in thy sight,

O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

First words are important.

VBS Season

Churches everywhere are observing Vacation Bible School Season. Although liturgical calendars do not note the sacred time, summer would not be complete without the Holy Week of bedlam and chaos.

I grew up attending VBS with a different theme each year. A joyful Jesus adorned all of the materials. Maps, pictures, and posters adorned the cinderblock walls. Flimsy 33-rpm records supported the curriculum with the week’s featured songs.

Filmstrips were high tech way back then. Multi-media presentations included felt boards with cartoon figures. For years, I thought all the disciples were six inches tall with Velcro strips down their backs!

Recreation was the high point of the day. The older youth led the playtime, which meant the teenage boys flirted with their female counterparts while we ran wild. The more organized leaders tossed us a kick ball before standing aside.

Refreshments included juice along and cookies. Whenever I read about Jesus feeding the five thousand with loaves and fishes, I always assumed the writers meant to say Kool-Aide and Oreos! I also thought that the pastors ought to substitute iced sugar cookies for the stale crackers used at Holy Communion.

We loved arts and crafts time, using markers, construction paper, glitter, balsa wood, and modeling clay. Oh, and the things we could do with a few Popsicle sticks and some paste glue! No doubt Noah constructed the ark with only these supplies on hand.

During music, we enthusiastically sang the songs of faith. Our Top Ten List included “This is My Father’s World,” “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” and “The B-I-B-L-E.”  Our all time, number one, favorite was “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know.”

Truth to tell, I remember the context of Vacation Bible School much more than the content. However, those summer weeks became grace-moments in my life. I learned that the Lord God Almighty, the Creator of the heavens and the earth, loved and cherished ME!

I hope every child in our community has the opportunity to attend Vacation Bible School this summer. The experience will transform their lives, and the memories will last forever.

Give this generation a foundation of faith along with some juice, cookies, and Popsicle sticks, and they will change the world forever!

Go Where You’re Sent

Due to the global pandemic, the North Georgia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church is meeting virtually this year. The clergy and laity will meet separately on Thursday followed by a business session on Friday. On Saturday, two worship services will honor those who have died and celebrate those who are ordained.

Traditionally, the final agenda item is the “fixing of the appointments.” The bishop formally announces the pastoral appointments for the coming year. Back in the day, this was the first-time clergy and churches heard about upcoming changes. Today, the announcement formalizes the work done in the winter and spring.

On a personal note, I am delighted that our entire clergy team has been reappointed to Northside United Methodist Church. Catherine Boothe Olson, Jeff Rogers, and I look forward to serving our congregation and community during the coming year.

Ordained elders in the United Methodist church serve as itinerate pastors. During ordination, we promise to go where the bishop sends. It’s like signing a blank check with the currency of your life, trusting another to spend it wisely.

I entered the full-time ministry in 1982, and I have served seven appointments over the past thirty-nine years. My family and I have experienced the gamut of emotions during years of transition and change. Looking back, however, I can witness the Holy Spirit working in, thru, and despite our appointive process.

I sometimes smile and say, “Methodist polity is the worst system in the world—except for all of the rest of them!” Despite the challenges and shortcomings of itinerant ministry, I cannot imagine a better way of discerning pastoral appointments.

Although Methodist elders take formal vows of itineracy, God calls ALL Christians to go wherever the Lord sends. Faithful disciples walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Go where you are sent, and you will find the Holy Spirit waiting.

Limited Lifetime Guarantee

Timex made my first wristwatch. On TV, John Cameron Swayze assured the audience, “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.” According to the ads, the watches survived water skiing, skydiving, earthquakes, volcanos, nuclear meltdowns, and supernovas.

The watches also came with a “limited lifetime warranty.” The “limited” modifier always puzzled me. No doubt this was the legal department’s aim.

If the lifetime in question was MINE, then I could expect my Timex to last all my mortal life. Its reassuring “tick, tick, tick” would be the last sound I heard on earth. However, this meant that the Timex Corporation had calculated my life expectancy!

Maybe the guarantee referred to the product’s lifetime; but how long is a watch supposed to last? How many human years equals a wristwatch year? Perhaps when a Timex dies after ten years, mourners say, “Well, it lived a long and full life.”

Regardless, I never put the Timex’ guarantee to its lifetime test. No warranty covers a boy’s carelessness. Somewhere between home, school, and church, the watch lost itself. It may be ticking away in some hidden spot.

Other than death and taxes, life comes with few guarantees. Life does not even promise us tomorrow. Each day is a precious gift of time.

On any given day, we receive 86,400 seconds to be spent in service to God and others. The Lord calls us to be wise stewards of evert moment. Like a misplaced watch, wasted time can never be regained. Therefore, let us echo the Psalmist’s prayer to God, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

This is the day the Lord has made. Don’t waste time: rejoice and be glad in it! You’ll be glad that you did—I guarantee it.

The Last Day of School

During childhood, I loved the last days of school. The final week celebrated the best elements of education without the needless distractions of books, lessons, or tests! Students spent the hours helping teachers prepare classrooms for summer break.

The boys carried armloads of textbooks to the storage closet. We embraced the manual labor as a badge of honor. After delivering the dusty tomes, we roamed the halls before reluctantly returning to class.

The girls washed the chalkboards and stripped the bulletin boards. All of us joined in dumping the year’s debris from our desks. Then we scrubbed the desktops until they gleamed.

Teachers sent the most trustworthy children outside unsupervised to clean the chalk erasers. We banged the felt pads against the building and scrubbed them on a wire box. Clouds of white powder filled the air. No doubt a future Surgeon General will determine that chalk dust caused many of my generation’s ills!

The cafeteria closed early for its annual degreasing, so the school provided grab-bag lunches with mysterious contents. In the days before peanut allergies, they often served peanut butter and honey blended sandwiches—a terrible defilement of the traditional peanut butter and jelly classic.

 When the last bell of the last class of the last day sounded, we erupted from the classrooms like escaping POWs. Whoops of joy resounded down the hallways—some from students and the rest from teachers! Bursting through the exits, we exalted in our newfound freedom.

An endless summer stretched before us, enchanted with magical promise. Who knew what new adventures awaited us? Anything and everything were possible. Life stretched before us filled with limitless potential.

Sometimes I imagine that the final day of my life will feel like the last day of school.

35th Anniversary

On May 17, 1986, Tracy and I said “I do.” Next week we will celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary.

I vividly recall our first date. When Tracy answered the door, her beauty left me breathless. I thought, “Why are YOU going out with ME?” Thankfully, I possessed enough sense never to ask!

May 17, 1986

The first date led to a second and a third as days turned into weeks and months. The following Christmas I popped THE Question. She amazed me by saying, “Yes.”

Our wedding day remains a blur in my memory. However, I remember the weight of the sacred vows: “For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.” Other than the death-parting thing, we’ve done them all.

We quickly discovered that a wedding is a day, but a marriage is a lifetime. The statement sounds like a cliché; however, clichés are born from simple truths. Couples that endure fulfill their vows faithfully one day at a time.

Tracy has seen me at my best and worst, and she has loved me still. I always felt accepted for who I was but challenged to become who I could be. Her gracious love transformed me into a better husband, son, father, pastor, and child of God.

Most love letters remain private, and rightfully so. On the occasion of our 35th Anniversary, however, I wanted to publicly share how God has richly blessed me through my wife, Tracy Proctor Burch.  

I love you.

Bill

A Mother’s Day Prayer

This Sunday, May 9, our nation will observe Mother’s Day. The holiday began in May 1907 at Saint Andrew’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia. A Methodist laywoman, Anna Jarvis, organized the service to honor her mother.

In 1912, the Methodist Episcopal Church adopted the observation on a denominational level. Two years later, President Woodrow Wilson designated the second Sunday of May as a national day to honor mothers.

Church and country created the holiday with the best of intentions. However, the annual observance is a pastoral minefield, filled with unexploded ordinance. Over the years, I often have used The Book of Worship’s poignant prayer for the day.

For our mothers, who have given us life and love,

That we may show them reverence and love,

We pray to the Lord.

For mothers who have lost a child through death,

That their faith may give them hope,

And their family and friends support and console them,

We pray to the Lord.

For women, though without children of their own,

Who like mothers have nurtured and cared for us,

We pray to the Lord.  

For mothers, who have been unable to be a source of strength,

Who have not responded to their children

And have not sustained their families,

We pray to the Lord.

Loving God, as a mother gives life and nourishment to her children,

So you watch over your Church.

Bless these women, that they may be strengthened as Christian mothers.

Let the example of their faith and love shine forth.

Grant that we, their sons and daughters,

May honor them always with a spirit of profound respect.

Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

April Showers

“April showers bring May flowers.”

My mother taught me this couplet during childhood. Even for a young boy, the meaning seemed obvious. Flowers need rain to grow.

According to the Internet, the source of all factual knowledge, the short poem originated in the 12th century. Thomas Tusser included the verse in his collected works entitled, “A Hundred Good Points of Husbandry.” I apologize, good readers, but I did not research the other ninety-nine points.

Tusser may have “borrowed” his rhyme from a passage in “The Canterbury Tales.” Chaucer wrote:

“When in April the sweet showers fall
That pierce March’s drought to the root and all
And bathed every vein in liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower.”

Call me juvenile, but I prefer Beverly Burch’s version to Geoffrey Chaucer’s verse!

Others seek deeper meaning in the words. We live in a fallen world where it rains on the just and unjust alike. However, God uses life’s storms to cultivate spiritual virtues. All sunshine a desert makes. On the far side of the torrent, we discover divine blessings.

Finally, April showers bring May flowers; but do you know what May flowers bring? The Pilgrims!

May the world titrate measures of rain, sunshine, and flowers in each of our lives.

Perfect Halves

Children possess an innate sense of fairness. They vigilantly stand guard against any perceived inequity. Even the slightest slight can elicit the elemental cry, “It’s not fair!”

(BTW, adults are grownup children who just disguise this proclivity.)

My wife and I experienced this reality while raising two children born three years apart. Although we tried to treat each child equitably, both felt the other was favored! Each was convinced that the other always got the larger share. Our protestations that we loved both equally fell on deaf ears.

I learned to include my daughter and son in the division of anything into halves. We followed a simple but effective rule. One got to cut the FILL IN THE BLANK into two halves. Then the other chose which half s/he wanted.

Inspired by enlightened self-interest, the child doing the dividing undertook the task with scientific precision. Otherwise, his or her sibling might benefit by picking a slightly larger half.

Some treat love like a limited resource, dividing time, attention, and emotion into slices carefully served. After all, there’s only enough pie to go around.

Others learn that love is limitless. The more we give, the more we receive—packed down, shaken together, and overflowing into our lives. Share the pie freely because we can always bake more!

It turns out that each of us is God’s favorite child. Because we are loved, we can then run the risk of loving others with undivided hearts. No matter how you slice it, God loves and cherishes each of us for who we are.

Excuse me, please. Suddenly, I have developed a hankering for a slice of pie and a cup of coffee.