Category Archives: Allyn Harris Dault

Guest post: Small Messages for a Large World

Guest post from my husband, Allyn Harris Dault. He preached this sermon January 22 at First Baptist Church, Belleville, IL.

We begin with a story.

There once was a man who loved to fish. Every chance he got, he would pack his favorite lunch, grab his favorite hat, head out to his favorite lake, stop the boat at his favorite spot, take out his favorite fishing rod, and enjoy his favorite hobby. His wife missed him but didn’t mind the long absences so much, especially when he came back with a good-sized catch for dinner (and entertaining recollections of larger ones that got away, as fishermen are prone to telling wild stories).

After one particular trip, a very interesting thing happened. The fisherman came back and told his wife a good story about a 7-pounder that he ALMOST had reeled in before a brief gust of wind took his hat off. Well, thankfully the hat stayed in the boat, but losing it made him lose his biggest catch of the day. He was still miffed about it the next day when he met a friend for coffee and a sausage biscuit at McDonald’s. And, like all good fishermen, this time when he told the story, he told it bigger and better. The 7-pound fish became at least a 9-pounder, and after a 4-minute struggle between them, the wind took his hat two feet up in the air before he caught it like an NFL receiver toeing the sideline. Naturally, his friend was impressed at his quick thinking and sudden display of athleticism.

The next Sunday at church, our fishing friend had a crowd of people mesmerized during the coffee hour with his harrowing tale of the 22-pound fish that drained every ounce of energy from his body before the fierce wind yanked the hat from his head – and miraculously dropped it on the edge of the boat, where our brave hero dove to grab it with one hand while holding onto the fishing rod with the other, the fish tantalizingly close to the water’s surface but just strong enough to snap the line at the last second.

We’re drawn toward big stories, aren’t we? Don’t we usually prefer to hear about a fire fighter who braves numerous dangers to save an entire family over one who switches batteries out of a smoke detector for someone’s grandparents? Or Genesis and Judges over Leviticus and Ecclesiastes?

Our first scripture passage for today is part of the big story of Jonah, and we know at least the first part very well. God tells Jonah to preach to Nineveh, Jonah runs in the opposite direction, hops on a boat, gets thrown overboard by foreigners (who happen to get converted) during a storm, and is swallowed by a fish.

But if we focus on the fish tale, we tend to forget that the Jonah story doesn’t end there. Nineveh, called “that great city”, becomes a side note compared to the sorry state of Jonah’s heart and the extravagant grace and power of God. After Jonah is delivered from the fish’s belly, God says again, “Go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” And Jonah does – barely. He goes just a third of the way into the city, and the message he offers is perhaps the worst sermon ever. There’s almost no content – five words in the Hebrew and less than a dozen in our English translations. At best, Jonah is half-hearted about it. “Forty days more, Nineveh, gone.” There’s judgment without mercy, there is no invitation, no call to repentance, no concern for the welfare of the people, just fear-mongering and doomsday. If Jennifer or I were to preach like that, you’d have every right to call Muriel Johnson and ask, “What were you thinking?” And then she’d have every right to call us and ask, “What were you thinking?”

But then this amazing thing happened in Nineveh – like the sailors who threw Jonah overboard, the people of Nineveh got the message Jonah barely preached. Everyone, great and small, repented; the king called for a national period of fasting and mourning and repentance – even including the animals! And because of their response, God – and this scares most of us – God changed his mind. Literally, in verse 10 (of Jonah 3), “God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.” So things kinda worked out in the end. 🙂

Now fast forward to another Bible story about fish and short sermons. When Jesus calls Simon Peter and Andrew, he says, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” It’s a great line, first because it comes from Jesus and he’s usually pretty good with words, but also because it spoke directly to who they were and what they were already doing and the task Jesus was calling them to. Jesus can do all of that in just a few words, and unlike Jonah, he means them! He wants these folks, and also James and John, to go share the good news of God with people, that “[t]he time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). Again, a short message, but a good one.

There’s a real, strong temptation we sometimes have to make this story into more than it is. We usually don’t mean to, and sometimes we don’t even notice it. I hope it doesn’t happen here often, but I’ve seen it happen at other places before. “Follow me, and after 17 years of education and a thorough vetting process I can help you begin to fish for people.” “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. You’ll see it come alive at this year’s church drama, accompanied by our award-winning praise band and children’s choirs and interpretive dance team, now with live camels. Tickets on sale after today’s worship service.”

Now, I’m not saying that education or drama or children’s choirs or camels are bad. I think they’re all wonderful, actually, and all but the camels should have a place in most churches. But sometimes, when we don’t have those things, we start to look around and think that they are the answer to our problems.

Some of you have talked to Jennifer and me about the size of this congregation, how it’s smaller than it used to be. You can remember people who used to sit in what are now empty spaces and you miss them, maybe you wonder what happened. Maybe you know what happened. That can be a really hard thing to notice, and it can make you worry and it can make you sad and it can make you scared.

But if you’re scared long enough, you might start to pray. And if you pray long enough, you might start to hear those same simple messages: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news…. Follow me and I will make you fish for people…. Remember the story of the guy who was fish food? I used him, and he was a lousy prophet!” Because the message behind those messages is that God is faithful, whether our own stories are big or small. My friend Keith, who’s a pastor in Kansas City, reminded me this week through Facebook of the truth of the gospel. He posted, “Big dreams are conceived in quiet thoughts, small conversations, prayers in the closet & faith the size of a mustard seed. Such small beginnings, but what power they unleash!”

As always, the questions we need to ask ourselves are about how we remain faithful to what God calls us to. How do we follow the biblical mandate to care for our recent widows, to accompany them through the good grief they will experience over the next months? How do we reach out to the people in our neighborhoods and workplaces and restaurants and businesses to show them God’s love and invite them to recognize their part in it? In this long time of pastoral transition, how can we plan for the future of our church, how do we continue to support the search committee in their work? In the meantime, what do we call these two people who sometimes preach to us in pajamas?

If you’re at all like me and have a tendency to get bogged down with all these questions, I do have good news. You already know some of the answers. This is a good place with good people. In only three weeks, Jennifer and I have had several things to talk about on the way home after Sunday lunch (almost all of them good). You care for one another. You pray for one another. You do the things that churches ought to do. You step up when something needs to be done. You do the little, mustard seed-sized things that give birth to a bigger, God-shaped world. When you do that, big things aren’t necessary. We know this is true because God has always been able to turn small fish into a great feast.

(photo credit)

5 Comments

Filed under Allyn Harris Dault

Guest Post: Back to the Future

Guest post from my husband, Allyn Harris Dault. He preached this sermon this morning at First Baptist Church, Belleville, IL.

I

 I hope that by now you’ve begun to notice a theme present in today’s worship elements. (Story/Storytelling.) If I may be transparent so soon after we’ve met, I believe the importance of storytelling is impossible to over-emphasize for people of faith today. Perhaps I owe it to several good history and literature and religion teachers, or maybe it stems from my appreciation for country music that briefly caused Jennifer to question her decision to date me (she stuck it out, praise God!), or maybe there were too many Sundays as a child where I read the book of Judges during sermons I didn’t understand. Whatever the reason, if I could only give two pieces of advice to Christians who would seek to grow in their faith, they would be 1) God is gracious and has already called you into a holy and powerful love, and 2) Do all you can to grow in your knowledge and understanding of the story of God’s work in the world.

And what is that story that we must learn to tell? It is that God, before time began, spoke into existence all that we know in this world, and God chose humanity to play important roles in that holy creation. Some time after that, humans sinned; we chose to follow a different script than what God hoped for us, and we continue to struggle against that hope. God, of course, was not OK with human sin, and has repeatedly remained faithful and open toward us despite our faithlessness. Through Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and all the people we named earlier [in a responsive call to worship] and many others, God has been calling the world back to righteousness. And Praise the Lord! – God will get what God wants. The end has been written. Details at 11.

So that’s the banner-sized version of God’s story told by the Bible and believers throughout history. But in that larger story are smaller episodes, stories that stand alone. It can be a challenge to keep both kinds of stories in view at the same time. Sometimes, like with mosaic tiles, our smaller stories leave cracks between them. Or like dot-matrix printers they round off edges that could be sharper with a better layout. Hopefully we will be able to take a look at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel on a grand level AND a mosaic level, and still be able to leave without blurry double vision.

II

If you would, open your Bibles to Mark 1 again and notice a few things with me. First, this is the beginning of Mark’s story about Jesus, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). This is, of course, a common way to begin stories – at the beginning. The books of Genesis and John start very similarly. You start a story “in the beginning.” But Mark seems to know that the story actually starts BEFORE it begins. He mentions Isaiah and references Exodus and Malachi in vv. 2-3, and the way he writes about John the Baptist is very similar to stories about the Old Testament prophet, Elijah. The wilderness reminds good scripture readers of the Exodus story and several Psalms and many episodes of God’s deliverance. There is an intentional effort from Mark to connect this story to the past. We might even point out that Mark wrote about Jesus at least thirty years after the events happened. For Mark, even the Jesus part is in some way past.

The present of the story is obvious enough. John is “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” responded (1:4-5). John doesn’t let this go to his head, but points to a coming figure who will be even greater. By verse 9, that figure shows up. (Mark doesn’t dally around with Baby Jesus stories.) Jesus gets baptized by John, then the Hollywood special effects kick in. The heavens RIP OPEN, the Spirit descends like a dove, and a voice from heaven approves of Jesus as God’s Son.

What you may not know yet is that Mark is setting us up. Like all good Baptist preachers, Mark knows that it’s not just about who Jesus is or what he did; what WE do with this knowledge matters, too. Throughout Mark we find that usually demons and bad people call Jesus “Son of God” – the title we’ve already read twice in these first eleven verses, once from God’s own mouth. If we keep reading, we see that Jesus IS better than John, that Jesus IS the Son of God. At the end of Mark’s gospel, the heavens are torn open again in the form of the Temple veil. God can no longer be contained, but is unleashed on the whole world with the death of Jesus; we have never been the same. Already in the first eleven verses Mark is preparing us for what is to come, the “future” part of the story.

III

There are a lot of different questions we could ask about Jesus’ baptism. Was he immersed? Did other people see the dove or hear God’s voice? And if Jesus is the only one to see or hear, why the secrecy, since Matthew and John make it public domain? When the dove came down, was it a “sweet Holy Spirit, sweet Heav’nly dove,” or a fierce dive-bomber more befitting the apocalyptic scene of the heavens torn apart? (Elton Brown) What did Jesus do when he heard the voice; was he satisfied? stoic? surprised? smug? Why don’t we hear anything about Jesus and John’s family relationship? Why did Jesus receive “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”? If baptism is connected to forgiveness, does the church take it seriously enough? Did Jesus have to hold his nose under water? (Okay, maybe not this last one.)

If these are the questions that interest you the most, there are books, sermons, papers, and people who have offered different answers; ask me and I can try to point you to some of them. What I want us to think about this morning, and for the next several days, is the big question that was on Mark’s mind as he put the gospel together – What does this story mean, and how will you respond? To answer that, we need to go Back … to the Future!

IV

You might remember the story of Marty McFly and his friend, Dr. Brown. The Doc invented a time machine out of a DeLorean in 1985, and he and Marty traveled back and forth through time, first to the 1950s, then to the future (which is only three years from now), then back to the Old West in 1885. Every time they made a trip, one or both of them would manage to do something that upset the space-time continuum, that drastically changed the course of history until they could find some way to put things back together. The major organizing principle of the trilogy was “What you do at one time can have major effects on what happens at other times. The future, the past, and the present are all connected to one another.”

This is not exactly how we think of time’s flow. For us, time flows in one direction – from the past, into the present, to the future. Time flies like an arrow, they say. What Back to the Future and other time travel stories, both fictional and scientific, suggest to us is that maybe time is more circular, like the surface of a ball that wraps around itself and bends in different directions and converges on a point from different angles and slides and spins. In other words, Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd figured out what God had known all along; everything is connected.

To take this back to our biblical text, John the Baptist is connected to Elijah. He’s connected to the texts quoted at the beginning of Mark. He’s connected to Jesus, “the one who … is coming after me.” The people being baptized by John are connected to the ancient Israelites and to the church today. Jesus is connected to all of them, of course. The Baptism is connected to the Transfiguration and the Crucifixion and the Roman centurion and the man with a Legion of demons. And WE – your story, my story, the story of First Baptist of Belleville, IL, your future new pastor’s story – all our stories are connected, and they all help to make up the larger story of what God is doing/has done/will do in the world. How have you seen your life fit into God’s plan for the world? How have you seen your story and someone else’s come together, even for a short moment, in a way that makes the stories seem like twins separated at birth? How can you live your life with a greater awareness of the grand story of God’s redemptive activity, in such a way that your life as one of God’s dearly loved children finds its meaning in understanding Jesus’ true identity as the Beloved Son of God?

V

There’s a big fancy church word for this idea of the future and the past and the present all being connected, and it’s one of my favorite big fancy church words. It’s called “eschatology,” and it focuses especially on how the future affects the present. Again, that goes against the normal way of understanding time, but it’s beautiful and wonderful and amazing and biblical, so I hope you’ll give it some thought. It describes what happened in our biblical passage for today, when the heavens were torn apart. That’s an eschatological event, where something sacred – like the heavens – can’t be contained any longer, and so it explodes into something ordinary – like the sky.

Eschatology also describes an aspect of what happens when we gather together in worship, what happens in our baptism. Baptism is something most, if not all, of us share. It vividly reminds us of Christ’s death and resurrection. Through that, it also anticipates the coming resurrection of all people when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. Don Saliers describes it like this:

“The central images of baptism show that Christians participate in Christ’s death and resurrection   already…. The witness of baptism is a present way of life, the new creature is appearing. The church as the baptismal and baptizing community is itself to be a sign, a living witness to [the] hope. Hence liturgy [what we do here together] and its consequence in how Christians are to live out the baptized life anticipates the world transformed.” (56, emphasis and bracketed text mine)

Friends, this is one message of Christ’s baptism. How we live is supposed to show people what life ought to be like when God makes everything right again. When God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. The same thing happens when we partake of the Lord’s Supper, and happens in an extreme way at Christian funerals. We proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes, and we proclaim the deaths of those we love, people like [the congregation member who died January 1], who are held tight by the grave until God finally says, “No More!”

And if that future doesn’t get you excited, friends, I’ve got a story you need to hear again.

Pray with me –

Passionate, creative, story-writing God,

We are the characters in your masterpiece, designed by you to play certain parts and to love our Author. Stir in us, now and always, the desire to know the stories you have given us to tell, and to share them with others in compassion and boldness and wisdom and love. Receive our prayer, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

(photo credit)

Leave a comment

Filed under Allyn Harris Dault, guest post