Tag Archives: preaching

An Old Easter Fable


Mykola Pymonenko, “Easter morning” (1891)

Having looked at what Easter is not about last week (during the Catholic/Protestant observation), the following story about rebirth, renewal, and repentance offers a self-critical corrective. It too comes from the 1916 edition of Werner’s Readings and Recitations, the “Easter Celebrations” volume. The story itself is by Annie Hamilton Donnell.

Father’s Easter Sermon

“Today, father?”

“Yes, Plumy, why not? If you don’t feel able to go, I can go alone. Only I should miss my congregation sorely—it’s hard preaching to an empty church!”

The pale little woman smiled bravely. She got to her feet and crossed the room to the-stooping old figure at the desk.

“You shall have your ‘congregation,’ father,” she said. “Is it almost done—the sermon?”

“Yes, almost done, Plumy; I have tried to make it clear and strong.” She got his cane and hat and her own things. Then the old couple went out into the street. It was a beautiful day, with joyous thrill of waking life.

“You ain’t getting tired, are you, Plumy?”

“Tired, father? Why, you talk as if I was old!” smiled Plumy. She had her hand on his faded broadcloth sleeve and tried to lighten its weight. They had walked to church arm in arm for forty years.

In Mrs. Ronald Smythe’s bay window an animated discussion was in progress. Mrs. Ronald Smythe “ran” the little Elmwood church.

“We must have any amount of flowers—mountains and seas of them!” she was saying. “I want this to be a red-letter Easter at our church. It will encourage our new minister. See, there go old Parson Sledd and his little shadow of a wife. VVhat a queer couple they make! Where do you suppose they go together every week?”

“To church,” Mrs. Elsie said. “I’ve seen them going in. The door is always open, you know.”

“Yes, that’s where they go, all right,” chimed in big Mrs. Pingree, “they usually stay an hour or more.”

“These broken-down ministers who’ve lived out their day!” sighed Mrs. Elsie.

“Yes, it’s a problem what’s to be done with them, isn’t it? Somebody—who is it?—asks if they shall be shot!”

The three ladies broke into laughter. Then the talk went back to the Easter preparations and the flowers. Ten years ago Lemuel Sledd had been quietly dropped from his pulpit, to make place for a younger man.

Mrs. Ronald Smythe handled the reins of church government. The following week was a busy one for her. On Friday afternoon she went down to the church with Mrs. Elsie and Mrs. Pingree to plan for the floral display. At the church door they suddenly paused.

“It’s the old parson; shh! He’s preaching,” she whispered. “Don’t either of you make a sound. It will be as good as a play to hear him!” They stood in the shadow of the gallery and listened.

“It’s an Easter sermon!” tittered Mrs. Elsie. Out in the great dim church sat “father’s” little “congregation,” listening breathlessly. A single lily reared its slender stalk from an old-fashioned vase on the pulpit. The quivery old voice steadied and grew strong. It filled the empty church. The bent figure straightened, and “father’s” face was beautiful in the afternoon light.

It was a wonderful sermon preached in the empty church that spring afternoon. The three women in the shadow of the gallery heard it with sobered, wondering faces. The earnestness in it appealed to them where the thoughtfulness penetrated beyond their shallower depths. They sank into seats and sat with folded hands, listening.

After the sermon “father” prayed. “Gracious Lord, Thou risen One, have mercy on Thy servant. Give him of the patience that kept Thee patient. Let him be willing to stand aside while Thy younger servants serve Thee. It is hard, gracious Lord, it is hard to grow old! Thy servant would have liked to die in the harness, his soul longs for one more chance to preach Thee to Thy people in this Thy house. Give him Thy patience, Lord!”

Then the two old voices quivered into song together. “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.” Then, in a hush broken only by the distant call of a robin to her mate, “father” pronounced the benediction. “Be and abide with you all. Amen.” The three women under the gallery shrank back out of sight as the two old people went out.

Mrs. Ronald Smythe suddenly said, “I want to see the new minister about something.”

“Oh, well, tell him to do his best!” cried Mrs. Elsie. “No common sermon will do—now.”

“No,” Mrs. Pingree murmured, “not now.”

The young minister rose from his desk as Mrs. Smythe was ushered in. “Sit down and write it for me,’Mrs. Smythe,” he laughed boyishly.

“We won’t either of us write IL’: she smiled; “it was that came for. There is a minister—our old rninister—I want you to invite him to preach our Easter sermon to us. I have heard it; it will be a beautiful sermon.”

The old minister preached the Easter sermon in the Elmwood church. There were Easter flowers all about him. His white head seemed uplifted above a sea of them. There was Easter song in his ears as he sat in the pulpit with folded hands. Among the listening faces that filled the great room, row on row, was one that shone like a face transfigured. It was the face of “father’s congregation.”

“Dear Lord, dear Lord, I thank Thee for this day!” prayed Plumy, silently. “It’s the best day of all! Dear Lord, it’s most as if father and I had risen from the dead to-day with Thy dear Son.”

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Pulpit Freedom Sunday

There is a fairly simple test of validity for Christian civil disobedience, and Pulpit Freedom Sunday fails it. For those who haven’t heard, Pulpit Freedom Sunday is an initiative put together by the Alliance Defending Freedom that has rallied the support of some 1,000 preachers to violate the law today by endorsing political candidates from the pulpit:

Pastors are hoping their bold move will prompt the IRS to enforce the 1954 tax code, the so-called Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax-exempt organizations, such as churches, from making political endorsements. The law states it is illegal for churches that receive tax-exempt status from the federal government to intervene in “any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”

Alliance Defending Freedom, which is holding the summit, said it wants the IRS to press the matter so it can be decided in court. The group believes the law violates the First Amendment by “muzzling” preachers.

“The purpose is to make sure that the pastor — and not the IRS — decides what is said from the pulpit,” Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the group, told FoxNews.com. “It is a head-on constitutional challenge.”

It’s a worthy enough cause, I suppose, from a secular standpoint, and I certainly sympathize with an interpretation of the First Amendment which ensures legal protection for political speech, even by non-profit employees. After all, Citizens United taught us that corporations are people and money is speech. It would be a travesty of common sense to accept that but reject the notion that preachers are people and sermons are speech. But, being the confirmed old Christian anarchist that I am, whether or not the preachers have a constitutional case is largely academic for me. I am more concerned with whether or not the this instance of lawlessness is permissible by scriptural standards.

The classic biblical justification for civil disobedience, the clear exception to the otherwise ubiquitous insistence on lawful submission to the state–rendering unto Caesar, being subject to governing authorities, honoring the king–is Peter before the high priest. At first blush, this would appear to be a sound justification for Pulpit Freedom. After all, the issues seems to be the high priest telling Peter and the apostles what they can and cannot preach. Surely, however, our interpretation cannot be so anachronistic as to believe that the principle at issue here was one of free speech and the independence of the church from state censorship. Those are not first century concerns.

The real issue, the obvious issue, the issue that has been recognized by countless thorough and even casual exegetes, is that the commands of the ruling authorities directly interfered with the proper exercise of Christianity (if I may–hypocritically and anachronistically–throw that term back onto Peter). This would be the grounds not only for the continued preaching of the apostles throughout Acts in spite of persistent official and unofficial opposition, but it would also be the rationale that made later Christians prefer martyrdom to burning incense for Caesar, made them refuse under threat of torture and death to renounce the faith, and, if I may let my examples be a little more tribalist, has caused countless conscientious objectors to suffer abuse and death at the hands of the state. In each case, what was at stake was not preference or rights but the essence of Christian living. When a conflict arises between the mandates of God and the mandates of the state, Peter makes abundantly clear what would probably have been obvious nonetheless. God takes priority.

The question then becomes whether or not candidate endorsements are essential to the practice of the faith or, to put it another way, whether or not I can be a good Christian without taking sides politically. Obviously, I spend more time wondering whether or not I can be a good Christian if I do partake of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Whig and Tory, but even those still hopelessly mired in the belief that there is no conflict between faith and politicking must surely admit that it is possible to be a good Christian without being a good Republican, a good Democrat, a good independent, or even a good citizen if we’re defining that as active participation in the democratic process. Or at least I would hope most could admit that. Certainly, I can recognize that there is more than ample room for uncertainty in the realm of civil disobedience, particularly when ethical questions become more slippery than our neat categories of right and wrong can handle. But unless there is someone who would like to argue with me that abstention from politics is a positive sin, then there is no basis on which to believe that something as trivial as the violation of our artificial, contrived rights is grounds to break the law, man’s and God’s.

What we have here, the fundamental conflict for the Alliance Defending Freedom (and let it not be lost on anyone the use of “Defense” and “Freedom,” those two favorite codewords for mobilizing aggressive, militant behavior) is not between what God commands and what the state commands but between what the state promised and what the state delivered. There’s a disconnect, certainly, or at the very least a lack of clarity. In any case, a Christian–or any reasonable person, really–should not be surprised when civil government proves itself inconsistent, self-defeating, and oppressive. That’s the nature of the beast and all the more reason to keep it out of our sanctuaries.

Meanwhile, because I abstain from politics I found myself regrettably compelled to abstain from church today as well. I only hope someone, somewhere had a bolder response. Perhaps, in messianic fashion, someone took a whip (figuratively) and drove the peddlers out of God’s temple. A politician is certainly no less a robber than a vendor. If turning the holy place into a marketplace is enough to get the Son of God angry, do we assume he’ll be any more pleased to see it turned into the Forum?

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J. W. McGarvey: On Money

The following is part of an ongoing commentary on J. W. McGarvey’s Sermons Delivered in Louisville Kentucky. For an introduction to and table of contents for the series, see Happy Birthday, J. W.

Admittedly, I find matters of church finance to be a great deal less inspiring than questions of providence or even baptism. Yet, McGarvey rightly notes that it is the “experience of all religious bodies” to struggle with money, so much so that “the very first sin and scandal within the Church in Jerusalem was connected with its financial matters–the sin of Ananias and Sapphira.” It is appropriate, therefore, that McGarvey should take time in his sweeping homiletical programme to say a few words about money. Thankfully his sermon does not take the form—as so many modern ones do—of a thinly veiled appeal to boost donations.

McGarvey’s first point is to define the biblical principles which ought to guide regular contribution for church maintenance. The first is stewardship, which is more often than not a euphemistic way of attributing theoretical ownership to God while claiming all practical rights for humanity (e.g. the stewardship of natural resources). In McGarvey’s estimation, however, a proper understanding that humanity truly owns nothing in the world and that everything is owned by God would radically redefine the way Christians deal with their money. “Don’t you suppose there would be reproduced in that congregation [that understood stewardship] the liberality of the first Church?” The absence of that liberality with God’s goods by Christians is perilous for Christians; just consider the parable of the unjust steward.

The second principle is proportionality, tied closely to the third principle of equality. First, God has commanded that all give proportional to the degree they are blessed or burdened. There is no fixed fee for membership in the church, and God has made allowance for times of fiscal hardship just as He has proportional expectations for times of great blessing. “If I am to give to the Lord of that which he has entrusted to my hands for the time being, it follows, as a necessary conclusion, that the amount I am to give is proportioned to the amount which He gives me.” Yet, proportionality is not intended to shift the burden onto the blessed. Even as there is a quantitative disparity between the duties of the rich and the poor, everyone shares equally the command to give. This is not the US tax code; there is no line beneath which you are no longer expected to contribute. Even the widow offered her mite.

After listing the principles which ought to govern church contributions, McGarvey takes a moment to remind his audience that the Christian’s fiscal responsibility to the church does not nullify the Christian’s fiscal responsibility to the world. To be in Christ is to be committed not only to the body of Christ but to the world which Christ came to save:

With these principles to govern us, I do not think it will be very difficult for us to decide what is the best way to secure from the members of a congregation that portion of their funds which is necessary to carry on the work of the Church. I am guarded in saying that portion of what they have, because I do not think it can ever occur in this country (it certainly can very seldom occur) that all the giving to be done by the members of a congregation is that which is necessary for its own regular and current expenses. Of course, that must be met. But what man is there that is willing to be contented with that? What man who loves the Lord, and desires to do some good in the world, is willing, while giving what he ought for his own congregation, to never give a cent for the broad, outlying world that is perishing in sin for the want of aid from those who have the knowledge of the truth? The home demand can not bound the liberality and the benevolence of any man or woman who has a heart to feel for the suffering and dying nations of the world. A man can not be contented to give to the treasury of his own congregation what is necessary to keep it up, and refuse to give to the suffering poor in the city. Our benevolence must reach out beyond the narrow circle of our own congregation’s wants.

It is here that McGarvey makes a contentious suggestion, controversial in his own day and exponentially more so in our own: “Just here let me remark, that I find men all over the country in the churches, who think that they are not responsible to anybody except God, as to their giving;–Nobody’s business but mine and my God’s. I wonder if those men could give a reason why a man should be held accountable by the authorities of the Church for all the other sins he is guilty of, or maybe guilty of, and not be held accountable for this particular sin…The Church has greatly sinned in not dealing with them as it ought. The time is coming when we shall deal with them more faithfully.” In our own time, there is a prevailing sentiment that every sin is “nobody’s business but mine and my God’s.” McGarvey was lucky enough to live in a time with the more biblically defensible worldview that sin was a community matter among the members of Christ’s body. If we believe that—or, in the case of the modern church, if we can reclaim that belief—it is difficult to circumvent McGarvey’s suggestion that what we do with our money ought to be just as much a matter for concern among the brethren as the much more popular topic of what we do with our genitals.

Finally, McGarvey turns his barbs to his own ilk, preachers. Insofar as he hoped from the beginning that this sermon series would be a homiletical aid for young minister for generations to come, this exhortation rings especially true:

I am afraid that we preachers are not as faithful as we ought to be in dealing with this subject in the pulpit. I have myself tried to be, and consequently I have never yet lived and labored regularly for a congregation that was not a liberal one. I remember an incident told me by an aged brother when I was a young preacher, which often comes to me in this connection. There was a man about to die, the richest man in the congregation. He sent for his preacher. When he came, he said, “I want you to read and pray with me; I think I am going to die.” The preacher sat down, and not recalling at once any particular passage to read, opened the book at random. His eye fell on this–“Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust do corrupt, and where thieves breakthrough and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in Heaven.” He said to himself, I will not read that to the dying man; he will think I am hitting at his great failing. So he gave the leaves a flirt at random to another place, and the first passage his eye fell on, was the story of the man who was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day, but who, when he died and was in hades, lifted up his eyes in torment. He would not read that. Then he flirted the leaves towards the back of the book, and the first passage was this: “But they that desire to be rich fall into a temptation and a snare and many foolish and hurtful lusts, such as drown men in destruction and perdition.” The preacher’s conscience began to hurt him now. He felt as if the Lord was dealing with him. He said to himself, maybe it is the intention of the Lord that I should read these very passages. So he read this last passage; he turned back to the story of the rich man and read that; he turned back to the passage in the sermon on the Mount and read that; and when he got through, the dying man looked up at him and said; “Why haven’t you called my attention in your sermons to these passages? You know, and I know, that they strike the very sin of my life, and you have been unfaithful to me.”

What is there to unite these seemingly disparate threads? McGarvey offers very little in the way of an explicit overarching theme. He concludes with an uncharacteristically short invitation with an all-too-familiar tie-in to the trustworthiness of God, but for the most part his musings on church finances show no signs of coherence. In truth, however, there is an obvious principle which undergirds all of them: the Christian use of money is essentially a matter of ethics. That is not all that revolutionary a suggestion, at least in its formulation, and yet McGarvey applies it with remarkable consistency to push the bounds of Christian thought on money. If improper use of money really is a sin, why do we marginalize it in our ethical discourse? Why do we care more about a man’s divorce records than his tax records? Why are we not afraid to condemn homosexuality but terrified to preach that it is harder for a rich man to get into heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle? That last one is easy: American Christians are more likely to be affluent than sexually aberrant. Undoubtedly that is the motive behind all marginalization of monetary ethics. In an American society that worships the unbridled power of wealth, our pulpits are conspiring to teach the church how to serve two masters. Unfortunately, we’ve been told that doesn’t work. It was perhaps a little easier for McGarvey, who was born into a Southern society that, at least in his youth, still had a built-in cultural critique of Yankee capitalism and “mammonism.” How much harder is it today to hear the truth of his message?

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Happy Birthday, J. W.

On this day, 183 years ago, John William McGarvey was born in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. The son of an Irish immigrant, McGarvey would find himself at Bethany College studying at the feet of Alexander Campbell and baptized by W. K. Pendelton. This impressive pedigree would be the beginnings of an auspicious career as a preacher, author, educator, and controversialist. In addition to a tremendous body of extant literature, McGarvey would make his greatest impact on the movement through his long, at times tumultuous, relationship with the school that would eventually become Lexington Theological Seminary. Thus, while he spent much of his life outside his home state, it was in Kentucky where his influence was most keenly felt.

In honor of his birthday this month, and the incalculable impact he had on religion in his home state and on the Stone-Campbell Movement at large, I will be examining his Sermons Delivered in Louisville, Kentucky, preached in the summer of 1893 before the Broadway Church where McGarvey was temporarily employed. McGarvey compiled and published his collection of sermons only with great reluctance, and in part because he recognized “that some preachers whom we have known, and on whose lips we have hung almost entranced, have left behind them, when they departed this life, nothing but the faint remembrance of sermons which we should have been glad to read again and again, and which were worthy of being transmitted to many generations.” He was humbly skeptical of any suggestion that he might be such a preacher, but history has proved that he is and has benefited greatly from his decision to add a compilation of his sermons to his impressive list of publications.

I will attempt to look at these sermons with a critical eye to their late nineteenth century setting, to uncover what McGarvey intends to be his themes and focus and how they arose in their historical milieu. In truth, however, the focus will be on drawing out these themes in order to understand and adapt them to the ongoing needs of contemporary Christian thought and practice. In this I seem to have McGarvey’s approbation: “[My sermons] should…serve as a homiletical aid to such young preachers as can study them without imitating them.” Whatever the rhetoric–then or now–it is critical to remember that the preaching of early Disciples was not about cold, scientific repetition. Their works were and continue to be living testaments to a vital faith which always merits study and often emulation.


The following is a list of entries for this series to be updated as they are posted:

On Scripture
On the Enormity of Sin
On Trust in God
On Repentance
On Baptism
On Providence

Addendum on Sin
Addendum on Providence

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