Fifty years and counting

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Not that it’s of interest to most people, but it has now been 50 years and a few days since I preached my very first sermon.

I was 18 years old and had graduated from high school in June. I had just finished the fall quarter at East Tennessee State University. Mountain View United Methodist Church in Kingsport, Tenn., was having a “youth day,” and, as I had been a president of the Methodist Youth Fellowship for a majority of the previous three years, the pastor, The Rev’d Fred L. Austin, asked me to be the youth speaker for the event.

Although I had taken speech in high school, the prospect of standing before a crowd of a couple of hundred adults, not to mention my peers, was terrifying.

I had read somewhere that, before a sermon is given, the preacher should spend at least one hour of study and preparation for every minute of sermon delivered. I studied, I struggled, I agonized and, finally, I came to a conclusion … I had no idea what I was talking about.

That may be one reason why I tend to dismiss 16-year-old children, however passionate they may be, who speak to the United Nations. They just don’t know how very much they do not know.

All told, I put about 20 hours of study and prep time on that sermon. When Sunday came, I gave the congregation everything I thought I knew. It took 11 minutes.

But I felt good. I felt that I had spoken with conviction, authority, and had even been a bit “prophetic,” in that I found fault in the way things were being done in the church. “Don’t let them despise your youth,” the venerable St. Paul told young Timothy. I thought this was good advice and was, thus, bold in my sermon.

Reality hit a few days later when a friend who had been present came to see me and brought his reel-to-reel tape player. He had taped the sermon. I was eager to hear what I had to say. I suppose I thought I would hear a voice like that of the young Billy Graham.

What I heard was the voice of a young kid with a Tennessee hillbilly twang. Not even a soft, Southern gentleman’s drawl, but a twang.

“Oh, my God!” I thought to myself. “I’m a hick!” But people were so complementary and congratulatory!

Later, I came to understand that, outside your own family, the church family is likely to be the most accepting, patient, and supportive group of folks around — at least to children and young people who are trying hard.

I cannot even begin to count the number of Christmas plays, special songs, Vacation Bible School presentations, and the like that I have seen over the years. If we’re truly honest, most of them were terrible. But we, the adults, clapped, smiled, gave encouraging looks and, after it was over, we lied through our teeth.

“That’s was wonderful!” “What a talented little boy you are!” “That song was beautiful. You have the voice of an angel!” It’s a wonder we could sleep at night after all those lies.

But we did sleep soundly and continued through the long years to attend the events and smile, clap, and complement. Why? Because they were OUR kids, because we loved them, and we wanted them to know that we appreciated their efforts.

And we really did. We knew with encouragement, training, and practice, those kids would, indeed, sing, and act, and play instruments with great skill as they matured.

I was 23 when I was assigned to my first church. After nine months of sweating bullets prior to the Sunday sermon and working hard at getting better, one of the elder gentlemen in the church lingered behind one Sunday morning.

The last to leave, he gripped my hand, clasped my shoulder with the other, looked me in the eye and said, “Son, you keep it up! You’re going to be a fine preacher someday!”

Two things I learned that morning: One, I was improving. Two, today wasn’t the day. But I was encouraged so I kept at it.

A couple of months ago, while going through some boxes, I found that first sermon. It hadn’t seen the light of day in decades. It was in manuscript form, every word put to paper. I sat down and read it over.

It was terrible. Truly terrible. I came across as a know-it-all, as arrogant, and as … well, an 18-year-old. I was embarrassed, frankly. Thank God no one asked me to speak at the United Nations. I thought I might preach that same identical sermon at my church on December 22, which was fifty years and one day since the original.

I decided my ego couldn’t stand it. It was bad enough just sitting in my chair with no one around and reading it. I decided it would be cruel and unusual punishment to inflict it on another congregation.

After I got out of boot camp, for I enlisted just five weeks later, I was, inexplicably, asked to preach again. I don’t remember what I said but this time it was from the heart. Something about how God had been so very real to me at Parris Island. Still, the adults were complimentary and encouraging.

Here is a truth I have learned in these fifty years:

“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” 1 Cor. 1:26-31 ESV.

That’s the only explanation I can come up with that would explain how I have come to do some good things. I’d like to think that I have come a long way in those fifty years; that I have lost some of that arrogance and realized how much I do not know about just about everything.

But, in the end, for me, it’s all about God and His mercy and grace. He has been faithful when I have not. He has never given up on me when I have. He never quit when I did. He never cursed me when I did Him.

In about 160 A.D., one of the first Christian martyrs was given an opportunity to live:

“Swear,” urged the Proconsul, “reproach Christ, and I will set you free.” Facing being burned at the stake, the aged Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, replied, “Eighty-six years have I served him, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” He died in the flames and his last words were, “I bless you, Father, for judging me worthy of this hour, so that in the company of the martyrs I may share the cup of Christ.”

I am no hero, no martyr, and certainly no Saint Polycarp. But, like him, I can report that, in the fifty years since I first stood behind that pulpit. He has done me no wrong.

As this year comes to its conclusion and a new year dawns, I am grateful for His faithfulness and for the continuing encouragement of His people. I pray that I not be a disappointment to Him and to His Church.

[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA between Newnan and Peachtree City (www.ctk.life). He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South which consists of Georgia and Tennessee and the Associate Endorser for the Department of the Armed Forces, U. S. Military Chaplains, ICCEC. He may contacted at davidepps@ctk.life.]