I was asked by the Order of St. Julian, a student group at Perkins, to preach at their chapel service today. Having the opportunity to preach in chapel was a tremendous blessing for me. In my sermon writing process, I typically write a full manuscript. I bring the entire manuscript with me in the pulpit; however, I do not preach it word for word. What follows is not exactly the sermon that I preached, but it is pretty close:
September 15, 2010
Kevin M. Watson
My name is Kevin Watson and I am a PhD student here at SMU studying Church History and Wesley Studies. I am an ordained elder in the Oklahoma Annual Conference of the UMC. I am also married to Melissa, an amazing woman, and we have two children, Bethany Faith, and James Matthew. One reason I am here today is because I am involved in OSJ and I was asked to preach. But really, I am here for three reasons: I am here because of a Spring Break trip to Mexico, because of a question that a professor in seminary asked me, and because I want to ask you the same question.
Let us pray:
I. The first reason I am here is because I went to Mexico for Spring Break when I was a sophomore in college at the University of Oklahoma. That year I had friends who went skiing in Colorado and other friends who went to the beach in Florida. But not me. I went on a high school youth group mission trip to Mexico. Really, on the drive through Oklahoma and then the seemingly endless drive through Texas, I had a pretty bad attitude. I kept thinking about how my friends were skiing or relaxing at the beach, and I was riding in a van with high school students. And to be honest, I was also intimidated because there were more than 100 high school students on the trip, and I hardly knew any of them. In my mind, it was hard to think of anything much worse than being a college sponsor on a high school trip, who felt left out and uncool. My attitude didn’t improve when I realized that we were going to get up at 6 am every morning. At some point, as we got closer to Weslaco, TX, I asked myself, What am I doing on a high school mission trip? Why am I even here?
But I experienced something on that trip that changed my life and that set me on the path that has led me to where I am right now. The group that I was in built a small school room. Actually, the responsible people in the group did the building and I played with the kids at the school, all day every day. And I had a blast. But more important, I felt God’s love for these children so strongly, more strongly than I had ever experienced God’s love before. And I felt God’s love for the high school students I was with. This experience helped me to realize that the love that I so clearly saw that God had for all of these people, God also had toward me. I had already been a Christian before I left for Mexico, but on that trip God’s love became more real to me than it had ever been before. It was as if the love that I read about in Scripture came off the pages of Scripture and came to life in a new and deeper way. And I realized that I wanted nothing more for my life than to respond to this love, to love God back and to be able to learn how to love other people as God loves me.
I am here today in many ways because of that trip. Of course there is much more to the story than that. But today I don’t want to talk about me, I want to ask you to think about your own life, and more particularly about your present: Why are you here?
When did God’s love first come alive in your own life? Do you remember when you were first surprised by the love of God? When you were first overwhelmed by the enormity of God’s love? Where were you? Was it on a trip? Or in your home? Or was it at your church?
Do you remember the experience that you had of the living presence of God that brought you here?
Another way to ask the question would be to ask: What was your first love? What was it that you were initially so passionate about that you began to take the steps that have brought you here today?
In the book of Revelation, John received a vision about the future. In today’s Scripture reading, John relates a message that was given to him specifically for the Church in Ephesus. Ephesus is recognized for its hard work, its perseverance, its inability to tolerate wicked people, and its ability to discern true apostles from false ones. These are not insignificant complements, these are not wicked people. And yet, the part of the message for the Church in Ephesus that really pierces my heart and has stayed in my mind is what seems to me to be a warning that is just a relevant today as it was when John first heard it. It is a message we need to hear today. Listen to the warning: “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.”
John’s vision is a plea for the Church in Ephesus to remember its first love. It is a warning that if they forget their first love, that the perseverance, the endurance, the discernment, the hard work will all be for nothing.
This morning, do you remember your first love?
II. More importantly, have you forsaken your first love?
This is a question that is relevant for all of us who are here today. It is relevant for seminary professors, for administrators, for all who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ. Every one who seeks to faithfully follow Christ faces the challenge of trying to keep everything else in life in its proper proportion to one’s allegiance to the lordship of Christ.
And yet, this morning, I want to speak in particular to those of you who are currently in seminary.
I am not all that far removed from being in your shoes. I remember well the excitement, the challenges, the stress, the fatigue, the reading, the papers, the exams, the fellowship, the churches I attended and preached at. And my favorite memory – graduation! It can happen to you too!
My message for those of you who are in seminary is actually pretty simple, I want to implore you to remember your first love. Who are you becoming during your time here? Although this is a question that we should ask ourselves throughout our lives, seminary seems to be a time when it is particularly easy to set it aside. And yet, what more important time in your life could there be to pay close attention to who you are becoming, than right now, when you are preparing, training for pastoral ministry? How can we hope to be effective leaders in God’s Church if we are not becoming more and more like Christ?
During your time here at Perkins, you will be graded and evaluated on many things. There are many factors that will determine whether you graduate – or should I say when you graduate. But you will not be evaluated on whether you are becoming a more mature follower of Jesus.
It is not that Perkins does not care about this. In fact, it is in Perkins’ best interest to have its graduates flood the church with passionate leaders who are deeply committed Christians, whose faith is evident and contagious. Still, your ability to pass or fail a class will not ever be based on the status of your faith while you are in that class.
And yet, it is easy to begin to pay the most attention to what you are being evaluated on. It is easy to worry more about how you are doing in a class than how you are doing spiritually. It is easy to become more concerned about whether you are going to graduate with honors than to be concerned about what kind of person you are going to be when you graduate.
And so I want to encourage you, to beg you to remember your first love! Because, if you forget, if you lose sight of the vision that God gave you, you may begin to learn about the right ways to talk about God, without continuing to talk to God. You may learn about the relationship between the persons of the Trinity, without cultivating a living, breathing relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You may learn about the best ways to read and study the Bible for preaching and teaching, without continuing to allow your soul to be fed and nourished by the Word of God. You may learn about systematic theology, without systematically applying your faith to your own life.
Remembering to stay rooted in our faith and to practice it actively seems basic. But, it is so easy to forget. My observation of the typical seminary experience is that it is busy. There is so much to do and it is often hard to know where it is all going to fit in. And this is before you factor in your family, your work at a church, or your work at another job, and scratching and clawing to try to make progress in the marathon sport of United Methodist known as the candidacy and ordination process.
The Church in Ephesus was not evil, it did so much that was right. But, nevertheless, it forgot its first love. It is so easy to do. Given all of the things that you have to juggle in seminary, it is easy to see how someone could lose perspective.
I almost forgot my first love when I was in seminary. In my second semester, I was disappointed in the results of my mid-term exam in one of my classes. After I got the results, I went to the professors office to ask a few questions about the exam. Really, I think I was whining politely, or complaining respectfully. My professor patiently answered everyone of my questions. And then he asked me a question, “Kevin, how are you doing spiritually?”
This morning, the second reason I am here is because my professor asked me that question. For me, being asked this question was like being stirred from sleep walking. I realized that I had lost focus. I was becoming obsessed with performing, with grades, with an inadequate measure of success. This gentle question helped me remember the deep reason I was in seminary, to prepare to be the pastor of a congregation, in hopes of helping people to come to know the depths of the love of Jesus Christ. And in hopes of helping those who were already followers of Christ to continue cooperating with the grace that God was giving to them so that they could become more holy, more like Christ. From that point, I realized that the consistency with which I was practicing the means of grace was just as important of a measure of my time in seminary as the number of pages I read, or the grades I got in my classes.
As I began to pay more attention to this, I realized that there wasn’t going to be time left over for things like searching the Scriptures, praying, participating in corporate worship, receiving the sacrament of Communion, or Christian fellowship, support, and accountability. I realized that if I wanted to grow in my faith I would have to make it a priority and plan for these important spiritual practices. In what felt like a radical step, I decided to plan first for things like reading Scripture, praying, attending worship, and participating in a weekly accountability group and to be willing to let other things go if necessary.
As it turned out, I rarely had to let other things go. (So this isn’t an excuse to be lazy and not take your academic work seriously.) But, for me it felt like a radical shift in perspective to determine that practicing my faith would always be the first priority. It was hard, and even now there are times when I struggle to cling to the reason I am here, to keep track of who I am becoming. Even this past few weeks, with a dizzying number of things occupying my attention, it was yesterday that it hit me that I need to hear my own sermon. I needed to remember that this is my priority, that this is why I am here. It is so easy to loose perspective. Sometimes we need someone to ask the right question to help us remember who we are becoming and why we are here. So, why are you here? Who are you becoming? How are you doing spiritually?
III. These questions are powerful because they remind us of what is most important. They keep us focused on our deepest goals. And when Christians gather together to ask each other these types of questions, it is far more likely that we will cooperate with the grace that God has given us. That we will grow in our faith. That we will become deeply committed Christians.
When my professor in seminary asked me how I was doing spiritually, it reminded me to tend to who I was becoming. And not long after being asked that question, I joined a small group of people who were similarly concerned for staying focused on our deepest goal, that of becoming more like Christ, learning how to love God more and love others more. This experience was transformative.
And as I began studying the history of Methodism, my own denomination, I discovered that the discipline of “watching over one another in love” as John Wesley called it, through some form of small group accountability was key to the vitality of early Methodism. The class meeting was a small group of 7 to 12 people, where each person was asked the simple question, “How is it with your soul?” For decades, Methodists believed that being a member of a class meeting was basic to what it meant to be a Methodist. In fact until the mid 1800s, according the Book of Discipline, in order to be a member of Methodism, you had to attend a weekly class meeting. In England, Wesley was often known to remove people from the membership rolls for failing to attend their class meeting.
A study of denominations in the United States found that in 1776 American Methodism was a tiny, little-known, and insignificant sect. By 1850 American Methodism had become the largest denomination in the country, by far! One way of glimpsing the dramatic growth of Methodism during this period is that in terms of the overall percentage of religious adherents in this period, the largest percentage increase among groups other than Methodists during this period was Catholics, who increased by 77% from 1776 to 1850. During this same shift Methodism increased by 1,368%! The growth of American Methodism during this period was explosive! One of the reasons for this growth was that every single Methodist met in a weekly small group to check in with one another, to give an account of how they were doing spiritually. In fact, one historian of American Methodism has called the class meeting “the building blocks of Methodism.”
Things have certainly changed in Methodism from 1850 to 2010. But have people really changed so much, that we no longer need to join together with other Christians to watch over one another in love, to support and encourage one another in an intentional, disciplined way as we seek to grow in our faith?
And so, this morning the third reason I am here is because ever since my professor asked me about the state of my soul, I have been burdened to remind others who are preparing to become pastors to tend to their own souls during their time in seminary.
I believe that the most important thing that you can do to ensure that you remember why you are here is to gather together with other people who are determined to do the same thing. The history of the Church that this seminary is rooted in bears witness to this, my own life bears witness to it, as do the lives of the others of us who have been involved in OSJ. We have found that when we come together to ask each other, “How is it with your soul?” We are reminded why we are here. We are reminded to pay attention to who we are becoming.
The reality is that during your time here you are becoming someone. I believe that the number one measure of your success as a Perkins student is whether during your time here you are becoming someone who loves God more and loves other people more.
How are you planning to become the person that you want to be when you graduate? How are you cooperating with God’s grace to become the kind of person you would want to be your pastor? One of the most amazing things to me about God is that God has graciously given us a role to play, we are invited into a relationship, not to be a puppet in a puppet show. So, how are you going to respond to what God has already done in your life?
Have you forsaken your first love?
Do you remember why you are here, really?
How are you going to make growing in your faith during your time here your number one priority? I hope and pray that you give serious attention to this question. Amen.