One Sentence Sermon
Really?! A whole sermon in one sentence? How can that be? It can . . . and is. What’s more, it’s just the kind of sermon a lot of listeners of sermons have yearned for—one sentence instead of several pages of theological rambling or ethical pronouncements or long-winded, homiletical speech.
But it’s not what you think. Not just short but powerful. Not just brief but Truth with a capital “T”. It’s the kind of sentence that stops you in your tracks and makes you say, “Whoa!”
Here it is:
“Every church should be able to get a letter of recommendation from the poor in their community.”Bishop Desmond Tutu
Is that not one of the most truthful, poignant, salient, profound (add your own descriptors) sentence you’ve ever read pertaining to serving people in need? As you can clearly see, I LOVE it! So much so that I want to dive into its meaning in this blog.
This one-sentence sermon comes from an understanding that the church’s first responsibility is to embody Jesus.
More than holding potluck dinners, more than building pretty buildings, more than being a member of and supporting a denomination, even more than holding worship services, the church is responsible to show Jesus to the world . . . starting with their own community. The church is supposed to be the main source for the story of Jesus—what he taught, what he did and what he did not do.
When I speak in churches about serving people in need, I often say “We are never more like Jesus than when we serve others,” because that’s what he did. There is no debate about that. Everybody agrees that Jesus served others. If the church’s first responsibility is to embody Jesus, there is no better way of embodying Jesus of Nazareth than to serve people in need. And if the church is serving people in need, they will have no difficulty obtaining a letter of recommendation from the poor in their community!
This one-sentence sermon endorses the power of the poor.
For the purpose of this blog, I consider the term “poor” to refer not merely to people who are materially in need but also people who are sick, imprisoned, disadvantaged, addicted, homeless, marginalized, oppressed and abused, etc. We never think of these as powerful people, that their opinions about anything matter very much. It has never occurred to us that the poor might have influence. Imagine walking up to a group of homeless people waiting outside a shelter to be given admission for the night and asking them which church in the community they would recommend. No one does that. No one even considers doing that . . . because the opinions of the “poor” don’t carry any weight.
When churches want to know what their community thinks about them, they go to people who live around their church campus. Invariably, those are people most like the church members. When I was a pastor, we sometimes conducted surveys in the community (not very seriously I have to say), but we never once sought out the poor and asked them whether they knew of our church or what they thought of us.
Bishop Tutu’s statement begs the question: Whose opinions of the church matter most? He gives his answer in his statement, but what is our answer? Churches everywhere would be wise to ponder that question. Some of our answers can be found in who we try to attract to our churches—families with young children (since we have a daycare and maybe a faith-based private school); people who enjoy nice things (since we have buildings that are as pretty and comfortable as we can make them); people with money to give; people who can be leaders not just in the church but also in the community enhancing the image of the church in the community.
Not so with Jesus. He came for the poor and oppressed, the blind and imprisoned. Read Luke 4. He came for the hungry and sick, the lonely and the outcast. Read Matthew 25. He came for sinners—greedy and unscrupulous (read Luke 19), immoral and rejected (read John 4). These are a small sample of the people he saw as worthy of his time and love. And they are the kinds of people who should matter most to the church.
What about your church?
If your church were to ask for a letter of recommendation from the poor, could you get one? If so, your church is among the rarest of rare churches. If not, and unfortunately that’s what I believe to be roughly 99 percent of all churches, maybe it’s not too late to re-examine your church’s priorities and ministries.
As if this blog is not bold enough, let me offer an audacious suggestion to my readers. Look for an opportunity to share Bishop Tutu’s one-sentence sermon with your pastor and ask for a response. A quick response is likely to be defensive. If you really want to know what he/she thinks, suggest they take some time to think about Tutu’s statement before they respond.