Last week we celebrated the life of Kevin Smith, one of our active clergy, who died unexpectedly. We lost an excellent second-career pastor who felt called into the ministry in 2004 and served local churches for fourteen years.
As his family described it, “Kevin’s life was the sermon.” Kevin touched every person he ever met. He would talk to anyone, treated everyone as family, always wore a cross, and never hid his faith. Perhaps Kevin’s greatest gift was that he devoted his ministry to making others’ lives better.
Kevin used to say that doing God’s work was his payment. It was a privilege and a joy for him to preach, visit, lead people to Christ, and make a difference wherever God called him. Kevin’s activities in the communities he served were simply an extension of his ministry. He was a chaplain for the Iowa firefighters, was involved in local conservation, drove a school bus, and was an ambulance driver. Kevin was ready to help at a moment’s notice.
Kevin’s premature death prompted me to reflect on what it means to be a professional in ministry. With annual conference just days away, a time when women and men are licensed, commissioned, and ordained to ministry and many clergy are preparing to move, how can our life be the sermon, just as Kevin’s life was?
Last week, I wrote about the important role that congregations play in welcoming new pastors and helping them get off to a good start. Today I am pondering how clergy can begin a new appointment well. Every year at annual conference, I find myself revisiting my own call and uncovering the layers of my ministry over many years. Although I am thinking especially about ministry professionals, I am convinced that our lives become the sermon whenever the qualities described below characterize the ministry of laity as well as clergy.
First, our life becomes the sermon when we incarnate God’s presence. Much of ministry is simply presence: presence at weddings, baptisms, and funerals; presence at coffee hour and in the homes of those who have just experienced a tragedy; presence at athletic events, graduation parties, Vacation Bible School, and at the front door of a new neighbor with a freshly baked pie.
Have you ever had the experience of walking into the hospital room of a parishioner and the person starts crying? They cry not because they see you but because they see God through you. You are God’s representative in the world. In our time of greatest need, nothing helps more that the assurance that God walks with us on our journey through the presence of others.
Wherever and however you serve, and whether you are lay or clergy, remember that your call is to incarnate God’s presence in the world through your very being. But don’t forget: you are also called to empower others to believe that they, too, incarnate God’s presence.
Second, our life becomes the sermon when we incarnate God’s grace. Grace is nothing more than God’s unconditional love. You and I are saved by grace through faith and not by anything we do. If only we could show grace to one another, we would truly reflect the nature of God. Yet the sad reality is that the church can be every bit as judgmental, harsh, and condemning as the world.
I’d love to have a big sign in the front of every church that says, “Grace is spoken here.” When we, as ministry professionals, model the kind of love that includes everyone, it permeates entire congregations and moves outside the doors of the church to heal our communities as well. When the world seems cruel, injustice reigns, and despair looms large, our call is to incarnate grace in our very being and then call children, youth, and adults to embody God’s unconditional love in their life as well.
Third, our life becomes the sermon when you and I incarnate gratitude. When our entire life is a prayer of gratitude, miracles happen. When our attitude is positive and we intentionally look for God’s blessings, they’re right in front of us. No, we won’t always get what we want or even deserve, but when we are grateful, our eyes are opened to other miracles like caring, community, sacrifice, and hope. We are able to see hope in the breaking of hearts, in mourning, in financial challenge, in the loss of employment, and even in the death of relationships.
In my travels around Iowa, I can often gauge the feeling tone of a congregation as soon as I walk in the door. When churches are filled with grateful people, there is spiritual enthusiasm, light, vitality, and health. On the other hand, I occasionally enter churches where the atmosphere is one of depression, negativity, despair, or mere survival. Of what kind of church would you like to be a part? As leaders, our call is to incarnate gratitude in our very being and then inspire others to live lives of gratitude as well.
Fourth, our life becomes the sermon when we incarnate servanthood. Every year at annual conference, I am amazed at the women and men who make a life-long commitment to professional ministry. I am stunned because claiming and serving Jesus as Lord is a counter-cultural act. We give up lucrative professions that could offer financial security. We give up “having a life” because we are always on call. We give up any semblance of routine or absence of pain.
Our calling is to incarnate servanthood, and by so doing, model those words we know so well but are so hard to live out, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Mt. 10:39) We let go of ego and pride in order to serve the very least of these. We are always migrating to the margins, seeking out the poor, the rejected, and the oppressed. Knowing that we can never remain safe and secure in our comfortable churches, we courageously walk out the front door with these words in front of us, “You are now entering the mission field.”
Finally, our life becomes the sermon when we incarnate shalom, which is nothing more than fullness of life. The essence of the good news of the kingdom of God that we proclaim is a shalom that implies wholeness and harmony for the world and its people. Shalom is a peace that includes reconciliation, forgiveness, grace, dialogue, respect, hope, justice, and joy. Shalom involves restoring our connection with nature, other humans, and God through Christ.
Is your life the sermon, just as Pastor Kevin Smith’s life was the sermon? Whether clergy or laity, how will you incarnate presence, grace, gratitude, servanthood, and shalom in your words and actions? And if you are preparing to preach your first sermon in a new congregation in a few weeks, don’t worry as much about the words on the page as about the life you will live as their pastor. Your new parishioners will not likely remember the theological nuances and detailed outline of your amazing message, but they will remember how you made them feel. And they will sense your passion for ministry, your love for God and neighbor, and your desire to lead them in becoming difference makers for Christ in their community and the world.
One time, Kevin was sitting in a car shop when a man came up to him and said,
“I saw the cross in the window of your car. I knew I had to talk with you. I just found Christ and need some guidance,” Kevin prayed for the man and handed him a Bible. Kevin’s life was the sermon. Is yours?
P.S. Because the Iowa Annual Conference will be in session next Monday, the next Leading from the Heartwill be published on June 18.