Every time I prepare to speak before a congregation, I can feel a degree of nervousness before rising from my chair and standing in front of the audience. After all, they say that public speaking is one of peoples’ greatest fears. But, why is that true? I have been speaking before audiences now for over 35 years; when I first began, it was a work-out, not that easy. During a sermon or talk, I am usually telling stories from my life, putting myself in front of everyone for their review and evaluation. I am also standing vulnerable before the claims of Scripture, explaining a truth for which we are all accountable. It would be a lot easier to stay home on Sunday morning, turn on the television, or sit in the backyard and let someone else do the talking. But, showing up, being willing to speak in front of your family, friends and community is what stretches us, and makes us grow the most.
When I was young, I watched my dad do a lot of public speaking and teaching when he was president of Blue Cross and Blue Shield National Association. He told me to never turn down an opportunity to speak before an audience, no matter how nervous it made me feel. He said the only way to begin feeling comfortable before other people was to do more speaking in front of small or large groups, it didn’t matter. It is the only way to find your own voice and eventual confidence in what you are saying. In fact, one homiletics professor in seminary once told our class that our first 50 sermons would most likely be average at best – that it usually takes that kind of time to find your footing.
In today’s world, there is increasingly less emphasis on showing up. You are invited to stay home in the comfort of your favorite chair, fire up the computer, and begin conversing with other people around the world you may never meet. You can join chat rooms. You can find a date. You can search for people who think just like you. You can argue a point with someone you either hate or love. You can even watcha sermon and make whatever you want of it, and never talk with anyone about it. People have become sitting ducks in front of their computer screens because they have no community about them or truth proclaimed in front of them to help them know what is true. For many, truth has become whatever you would like it to be.
This month, we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Talk about a guy who had the guts to stand up in front of his colleagues and fellow countrymen, and boldly proclaim what he believed. He had the courage to indict the behavior of the Church at the time, saying that Christianity had strayed dangerously far from the claims of the Bible. Martin Luther, an unknown monk at the time fromGermany, nailed 95 objections on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, and said, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” His courage and conviction changed the course of history. He was willing to take whatever heat would come his way because he felt what he was saying was true. But he did not object privately in the comfort of his home, through a messenger or some third party. He stood in the center of his town before the world and challenged anyone to prove him wrong. Martin Luther showed up.
I have lived on and off in Winnetka, Illinois, for most of my life. When I grew up in this northern suburb of Chicago, I can remember families flooding the downtown streets on Saturday mornings, drinking coffee, saying hello to everyone, getting a donut at the bank, and heading to the beach or some other outside recreation. People were often joking, poking fun at each other, and getting caught up. Today in Winnetka on a Saturday, most people are indoors. Houses are much bigger. Home entertainment has become the new value. The streets are nearly empty. Residents now keep in touch with each other by texting or sending photographs of themselves – the ones they want their friends to see. They have become less willing to stand physically before their community, no matter how sad or disheveled they may be on that particular day, and say here I am, ready and wanting to grow from whatever the community might have to say to me, and I to them.
Courage is the key word. What my dad taught me was to head into my fears or discomforts with courage, and to keep doing it over and over again until it becomes easier, a natural way of being. Suffering through discomfort with faith is what Jesus taught his disciples for three straight years through his example and words. He never let them off the hook. He made them stand before their community and explain what they thought or believed. There was no running home and saying I will get back to you later.
What Martin Luther wanted more than anything was for people to be changed by the Word of God, the Bible. He did not want anything to come between God’s Word and the believer. When the Church becomes corrupt, innocent believers can be lead astray by self-serving teachers instead of being influenced by what the Bible has to say directly to them. No one knew this better than Jesus. One of the last things he said to his disciples on the night before he was arrested was stay close to the Word of God. Jesus asked the Father to protect and sanctify his disciples through the Word. He said to the Father, “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world…They do not belong to the world just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.” (John 17:14,16-19)
We can be sanctified, purified, redeemed, and made new each day by God’s Word. It forces us to grow through greater honesty, repentance and love – though at times it might make us feel a little uncomfortable. We should not be dependent on the latest gimmick in our society, popular book, pill or substance we do not need, or being told we are liked on the internet in order to feel good about ourselves. Yes, we need quiet time to ourselves periodically; but otherwise, we need to show up on a regular basis and present ourselves toour community and friends in group meetings, big and small. And there is no better placeto do that than through fellowship with other Christians. Yes, we may need to set the alarma little earlier on a Sunday morning, walk into a sanctuary of our choice, sit down next toour neighbors, and let the Word of God proclaimed, bathe over us, sanctify us, and make us better people though the grace of our Lord. And, if someone asks you to stand up and speak before the congregation, don’t say no, stand up and speak.
During this special season of remembering the Reformation, please say a prayer, too, for all those Christians in the world today who have been jailed simply because of their faith – in North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia and China just to name a few countries where innocent believers have been yanked fromthe comforts of their homes, villages and families because they had the courage to speak up about their Christian faith. Ask the Father to protect them from the Evil One. I ask youto remember particularly a Presbyterian pastor, Andrew Brunson, in Turkey, who sits in a jail because President Erdogan wants to use him as a pawn for our government torelease a Muslim cleric in the United States. Rev. Brunson has labored peacefully in Turkey for 30 years, but now sits alone in a jail because of geopolitics and an increasing tension against Christians. These are our modern-day Martin Luthers, bold Christian leaders, needing our prayers, respect and love. They have unbelievable courage and are showing up.
Say no to anything that invites you to be more alone at home, building bigger walls around you, and becoming less dependent on the community of people who surround and love you. There is nothing to fear when the love of God is in the center of the room. Say no to the fear of standing up in front of other people and explaining who you are and what you believe. Jesus knows it is not easy, and his grace will be with you. Say no to images that substitute for real conversations and real people. Say yes to the Word of God. Show up and your life will never be the same.
Rev. Dan McNerney