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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

July 20, 2014

 

The Ministry of Encouragement

Isaiah 55:1-10; Hebrews 10:19-25

 

            The day was November 11, the year 1921. It was the day that our country dedicated The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, that white marble marker that bears the simple inscription, “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” President Warren G. Harding asked Woodrow Wilson to play a role in this dedication, as Wilson had been our nation’s President for all of World War I. He had left office almost two years earlier, a broken man. While Wilson was only sixty-three years of age, he looked much older. The victim of two severe strokes, his skin was ashen, his eyes sunken, his hair snow white. Wilson was now a shadow of the man he had been. Worse, the nation he gave his life to serve had seemingly turned against him, and the Harding administration moved in the opposite direction of everything he cared deeply about, including his dream of the League of Nations, which his own country chose not to join.

            Wilson and his second wife Edith agreed to join the giant funeral procession heading out to Arlington, but he chose not to speak or participate in the dedication. He could not have spoken if he had wanted. Their two-horse-drawn carriage joined the procession, the former President wearing a dark suit, overcoat and a high silk hat. As the crowds began to recognize them, whispers soon became shouts and waves of applause. Before the procession arrived at the cemetery, the Wilsons left it as instructed and headed home to their house on S Street. Huge crowds followed, and later that day, upon arriving home, a crowd of twenty thousand had gathered in front of his door. For ten minutes they roared, offering three cheers for Wilson and the League. Leaning hard on his cane, Wilson walked down the front five steps to greet three disabled vets, and went back inside. The crowds kept calling for him, and now had signs that expressed their support and love for this all but forgotten leader.

            Finally, with Edith at his side, Wilson returned to the front porch, tears streaming from his eyes. Trembling, he raised his hand and the crowd went utterly still. With a halting voice, he said, “I wish that I had the voice to reply and to thank you for the wonderful tribute that you have paid me. I can only say God bless you.” As the crowd spontaneously sang, My Country ’tis of Thee, the Wilsons held onto one another and he kissed Edith’s hand, waved to the crowd, and went inside. The crowds stayed for a long time, silent, almost reverent.

            It was, for this very ill, tired, discouraged hero of a man, this Presbyterian minister’s son and grandson, a wonderful moment of encouragement. Encouragement. It is something powerful that all of us need, and it is something you simply cannot give to yourself. It takes another, a community, honestly, to provide this gift without which no one can ever become what they are meant to be.

            As we ordain Richard Adam DeVries today and install him as our new Associate Pastor for Youth and Their Families, I chose on purpose the text from Hebrews 10:24: “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another….” I chose it because our small group ministry is called 10:24 after this passage, but I chose it even more to remind our whole congregation that we are called by God as a church to be encouragers one of another. And as we ordain and install Adam, I do not want any of us to miss how important, how vital to our life as a community of faith this gift of encouragement will be.

            But before we get there, let’s step back for just a moment, and reflect upon the Letter to the Hebrews out of which our text comes. Hebrews is one of the most sublime and beautiful statements of the sum and substance of Christian faith. Yet it is a book whose origins are shrouded in mystery. Indeed, it was one of the last books accepted into what we know today as the New Testament, not gaining universal acceptance until the fourth century a.d. The very first list we have of early sacred Christian writings is called the Muratorian Canon, which dates back to 170 a.d., and it makes no mention of Hebrews. The problem the early church had with it never had anything to do with its content, but rather with uncertainty over its authorship.

            The early church had many theories on this, as do modern scholars. But truth to tell, no one is sure who wrote this book that was likely very early Christian preaching by a master theologian and writer, who proclaimed that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.” My favorite theory is espoused by the Scottish New Testament scholar William Barclay, who wondered if it was authored by Paul’s missionary partner, Barnabas, whose name means, “son of encouragement.” Barclay argues that the whole Letter to the Hebrews is offered as a word of encouragement to a young church in crisis, facing persecutions and maybe tempted to revert back to Judaism because the cost of following Jesus has become so great. The author begs them, “Hold fast to the confession of your hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.” And how do we do that? By “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

            Let me mention three of the most important ways that we can fulfill this call to be encouragers of Adam, and even more importantly, encouragers of one another.

            First, there is the encouragement of worship. Every time you gather to worship Almighty God, you are offering encouragement to the rest of us. This was the heart of the author’s original plea. “Do not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some….” Apparently, some had fallen away from worship, from the gathering of the community around Word and sacrament. Adam will doubtless talk to you at some point about the massive study of youth and young adults called Sticky Faith. It is a clever title for a book based on hardcore research of faith practices of real people, thousands of them. Sticky Faith asked, “What creates faith in our children that sticks with them into adulthood?” How do we create faith in the next generations so that they will carry it with them through life? Do you know what their research has found? The single most important element in finding “sticky faith” as a child or a teen that will last a lifetime is worship.

            Statistically speaking, children and teens who learned to worship, who established the habit of worship, are the most likely to have a “sticky faith.” You see, faith in Jesus Christ is not just taught – even more importantly, it is caught! As you come to worship every week, your faith becomes an example to others – a source of great encouragement. It becomes contagious, something others catch from you. “Do not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another….” Actually, the passage begins, “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good works….” The word could just as easily be translated “pester”! “Let us consider how to ‘pester’ one another to love and good works….”

            That is part of Adam’s and my calling! It is our call to “pester” you into worship! I do so because I know that this is true: We are as we worship. You all learned in school, “You are what you eat.” This is true, but even truer is that you become like whatever you worship. We become, we are, what we worship. And it is only if you are worshipping Jesus that you will be growing to be more like Him.

            But that brings me to a second way we can encourage one another – through the power of our words. Proverbs says, “Good words make an anxious heart glad.” Proverbs teaches, “Pleasant words are sweet to the soul and healing to the bone.” You know that this is true: Words are powerful, and it is a powerful, wonderful, healing, life-giving thing when a church community understands this. You all can recall a time when the right word from the right person at just the right time made all the difference in the world to you.

            Herb Miller was a very successful church consultant ten or fifteen years ago. He wrote a great book called, The Vital Congregation. In it, he makes the point that within all organizations, in every workplace, in every school, and surely in every church, there exist “patterns of conversation.” Miller says nothing is any more important to what a congregation becomes. Patterns of conversation, or what people habitually say, and how they say it, whether out in the open, or in secret, create a climate. The words you speak create a climate or an environment. So as Adam DeVries starts his ministry with us, let me offer you a word that I pray will become a pattern of conversation that creates our climate around his ministry. I was in Princeton in May at a large reception in the magnificent new library with faculty and Trustees, over one hundred fifty people. Craig Barnes is the new President of Princeton Theological Seminary, one of the best preachers in America, and becoming one of the most important voices of faith in our land. (You will get to hear him preach here in October!) Craig saw me, and said, “I just learned that you are calling Adam DeVries. I am so excited for Adam and for you, Todd, for all kinds of reasons. Adam is the best we’ve got.” Other faculty who heard Craig said, “You’re getting Adam? He’s great!”

            Did you hear that? We are getting one of the best young ministers, one of the very best youth pastors in the country! Spread the word! And never forget to offer a word of appreciation to Adam and to Sara as they work and serve in our midst! William James was right: “The deepest craving within the human soul is the craving to be appreciated.” 

            And one final way to offer encouragement – a way where you have always shone, and where you will doubtless shine moving into our shared future. And that is the encouragement that comes from prayer. In Jesus we are told in Hebrews that we have “a great high priest.” I take that to mean that Jesus prays for us, and nothing encourages me any more than that thought. But we also are a Reformed community of faith that believes in “the priesthood of all believers.” We are all called to pray for one another, to uphold one another in prayer. I know that so many of you pray for me, and I know you will pray for Adam and Sara, and Parish and Nealy.

            In 1983 I was called to the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Columbia. I had never lived south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and frankly, had never led a church. I had never led a stewardship campaign, never even moderated a Session meeting. The Sunday of my installation as their pastor was humbling, and more than a little terrifying. I sensed how very much these good people expected of me, how much they were depending on me. So when I gave the benediction I said, “I promise you my prayers in the years ahead we will share, but I beg for yours as well. I will need them more than anything else you can offer.” That night, six-year-old Lauren Fogle was saying her prayers with Ebie and Frank, “God bless Mommy and Daddy, and Katie and Granny and Grampy. And please help Todd not to be so afraid.”

            “More things are wrought by prayer than this world ever dreams of….”

                                                                                    Amen.

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