Friday, January 23, 2009

Preacher Cracks Out a Homerun!

I’ve heard good sermons in my life and I’ve read most of the classic ones, and Pastor Sharon Watkins’ message stands with the better ones.
by Charlie Leck

Sincere congratulations to the Reverend Sharon Watkins for delivering a block-buster sermon at the National Prayer Service on Wednesday. This service has become a historical and traditional part of the Presidential Inauguration. In one form or another, the roots of this prayer service go all the way back to the presidency of George Washington. Members of the House, Senators, the President and Vice President and other government dignitaries gather to pray for the success of the new administration. In addressing, particularly, the President yesterday, Pastor Watkins said in her opening:
“There is still a lot of work to do, and today the nation turns its full attention to that work.“As we do, it is good that we pause to take a deep spiritual breath. It is good that we center for a moment.“What you are entering now, Mr. President and Mr. Vice President, will tend to draw you away from your ethical center. But we, the nation that you serve, need you to hold the ground of your deepest values, of our deepest values.”
Pastor Watkins heads the Disciples of Christ Church, one of the large, mainline Protestant denominations in the United States and Canada. It is a church of great openness and thoughtfulness and I admire it. Were I not a member with the United Church of Christ, I would probably lean toward being a Disciple.

My goodness, I’ve encountered a lot of good sermons over the years – those of the great, classical preachers and those of the brilliant international theologians. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing (live and in person) many of the great preachers of my life time. I attend a church where solid, meaningful preaching is a key ingredient in its history and traditions. I know a good sermon when I hear one.

The power of this sermon was that it was faithfully based on the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

I don’t tend to like those preachers who get too emotional and excited in their delivery. I prefer something calm, solid, reasoned and logical. Occasionally one encounters a preacher who can also let emotions soar within the bounds of good taste. I think Pastor Watkins can!

As far as I’m concerned, on Wednesday, Pastor Watkins hit a bases-loaded home run and I rank it right up there among the finest sermons I’ve ever heard. I’m going to do you a great favor here by providing you with this link to watch a video of the sermon(select webcast and when the service starts, advance the time to about 39:40) and this link where you can find the manuscript of the sermon.


The pastor established the theme for the sermon with this little story that she said comes out of Cherokee traditions.

“One evening a grandfather was teaching his young grandson about the internal battle that each person faces.

“There are two wolves struggling inside each of us,” the old man said. “One wolf is vengefulness, anger, resentment, self-pity, fear . . . “The other wolf is compassion, faithfulness, hope, truth, love . . .” \

“The grandson sat, thinking, then asked: ‘Which wolf wins, Grandfather?’ “His grandfather replied, ‘The one you feed.’”
Our instincts, the pastor made clear, urge us to lean toward the fearful wolf.

“In international hard times, our instinct is to fight – to pick up the sword, to seek out enemies, to build walls against the other – and why not? They just might be out to get us. We’ve got plenty of evidence to that effect. Someone has to keep watch and be ready to defend, and Mr. President – Tag! You’re it!"
That line drew plenty of laughter. This extraordinary preacher built toward a remarkable finish.

“It is right that college classes on political oratory already study your words. You, as our president, will set the tone for us. You will help us as a nation choose again and again which wolf to feed, which fast to choose, to love God by loving our neighbor.

“We will follow your lead – and we will walk with you. And sometimes we will swirl in front of you, pulling you along.”
The sermon was directed at and to the new President. Did he feel uncomfortable? I don’t think so. Does he fully understand the role of the biblical and contemporary prophet (this daring preacher standing before him or his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright)? I don’t think so. Yet, I could see the words boring into him. There were no nods from him and no evidences of agreement, but he was attentive and listening with both heart and mind. It appeared he showed some particular interest, considering the difficulties his nation is having with the Arab Middle-East these days, when the pastor spoke these words.

“Recently Muslim scholars from around the world released a document, known as ‘A Common Word Between Us.’ It proposes a common basis for building a world at peace. That common basis? Love of God and love of neighbor! What we just read in the Gospel of Matthew!

“So how do we go about loving God? Well according to Isaiah, summed up by Jesus, affirmed by a worldwide community of Muslim scholars and many others, it is by facing hard times with a generous spirit: by reaching out toward each other rather than turning our backs on each other.”
She banged hard on the incessant Judaea-Christian –Islamic theme!

“In times, such as these, we the people need you, the leaders of this nation, to be guided by the counsel that Isaiah gave so long ago, to work for the common good, for the public happiness, the well-being of the nation and the world, knowing that our individual wellbeing depends upon a world in which liberty and justice prevail.

“This is the biblical way. It is also the American way – to believe in something bigger than ourselves, to reach out to neighbor to build communities of possibility, of liberty and justice for all. This is the center we can find again whenever we are pulled at and pawed at by the vengeful wolf…"
Pastor Watkins was soaring as she neared her conclusion. She quoted the familiar, poetic lines of Emma Lazarus.

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses
Yearning to breathe free,…
Send these, the homeless,
tempest-tossed to me.”

And, on top of those lines, she looked hard at the President and Vice President and went further.

“Emma Lazarus’ poetry is spelled out further by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“As long as there is poverty in the world, I can never be rich, even if I have a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people in this world cannot expect to live more than twenty or thirty years, I can never be totally healthy…I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way our world is made.”
Flying high, she implored reason and generosity from the powerful legislators and executive leaders in front of her.

“…Even in these tough times, we can feed the good wolf, listen to the better angels of our nature.”
My heart was leaping and I was shouting multiple “amens” when she closed with a prayer taken from James Weldon Johnson. It was a perfect choice.

Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us…in the path, we pray.

Lest our feet stray from the places,
Our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world,
We forget Thee;

Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.

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