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Bishop Michael Coyner ~ But If Not…

This sermon was preached at the 2012 Ordination Service of the Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. So these men were brought before the king, and Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver usfrom Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”                                                                          Daniel 3:13-18

The past few months I have been haunted by three names and three words. By “haunted” I mean that I have dreamed about them, I have found myself daydreaming about them, and I have even reflected on these during my driving time to the point that I suddenly realize I am many miles down the road without knowing it!

Three names and three words.

When I shared with our worship team for this Annual Conference about my being “haunted” by these three names and three words, the chairperson replied, “Maybe God is trying to give you a message. And maybe it is a message for us.”

I believe she is right, and my message is primarily for those being commissioned and ordained today, but all of you can listen.

The three names are:  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were three young leaders who were a part of the Jews who had been taken into captivity into Babylonia. They were brought before King Nebuchadnezzar and accused of not worshiping and bowing down to the false idols and statues of that king.

They did not “spin” or evade or compromise – they simply said, “No, we won’t do that.”

When threatened with being burned alive in a furnace (the typical form of execution in Babylonia) and even taunted, “Which god will save you from that?” – these three young leaders responded with great faith, “It may be that God will save us from your furnace, but if not, we still will not serve the false gods you have set up.”

If you know this story from the Book of Daniel, you know that it has a happy ending – the three young men survive the fire, and in fact the observers see a “fourth man” with them in the fire – a “fourth man” that many have associated with Christ or at least with God’s Holy Spirit.

In some ways the happy ending is not necessary. The real power of this story is in their words, “But if not.”

Three young leaders … and those three haunting words, “But if not.”

That is the message I have to share with you.

In November of 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. preached a famous sermon entitled “But If Not” – based upon this same story from Daniel. It was just a few months before King was assassinated in 1968, and his sermon can be found online in audio version.

It is a powerful sermon. It is a sermon about the Civil Rights movement and King’s belief that ultimately that movement would succeed. But it is a call to his followers to keep on being faithful even when they were not seeing as much progress in the movement as they had hoped. It is a sermon in which King hints that he may not live to see the conclusion of the Movement, but he pledges to be faithful no matter what.

Martin Luther King, Jr. points out in his sermon that a lot of people live an “If” faith:

– If things goes well, then I will have faith

– If God performs as I want, then I will praise God

– If my faith is rewarded, then I will continue on with faith.

He contrasts that “If” faith with the “But if not” faith of these three young leaders, who say that even if things don’t turn out well, they will still hold onto their faith.

That is the real message of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

So, let me ask all of you today – new clergy and old clergy, laity, family, visitors, friends – do you have an “If” faith, or do you have a “But if not” kind of faith?

One of the real blessings of my ministry is that I have known many people who share this kind of “But if not” faith:

Ruth Ann was a member of the first little church I served here in Indiana. She was on kidney dialysis and waiting/hoping for a kidney transplant. It finally came, and I remember receiving a phone call from her husband Bob who shared with me the good news, “Ruth Ann just peed!” Sometimes the most simple and basic things are a joy to celebrate. But the real power of Ruth Ann’s story is that often she said to me, “Whether I get a new kidney or not, having this disease has brought me closer to God.”

Todd was a 13-year-old boy in one of my congregations who battled a rare form of cancer. Even after a bone marrow transplant, he did not survive that battle. But in the midst of the battle, as I visited him through the “bubble” of his protective environment in the hospital, Todd showed an amazing amount of faith and insight. One day Todd said to me, “Even if I die, there will be one good thing that happens. Every parent who hears about me will hug their children a little tighter and tell them how much they are loved.” Todd was right, during and after his funeral I heard so many parents – me, too – who hugged their children tighter and told them how much they are loved.

So here is my prayer and my hope for your newly-commissioned and newly-ordained clergy today:

I hope that every church you serve and every ministry you lead is filled with people who are responsive to your ministry and faithful to God … but if not, I hope you will still be faithful in your ministry. 

I hope that every sermon you preach is well-prepared and well-received by people who are eager to listen and to respond to the Word of God … but if not, I hope you will still be faithful in your ministry.

I hope that when you offer pastoral care to people, sometimes over many months, and when you have given and given of yourself to those persons, I hope that their families appreciate you and value your ministry. I even hope that they don’t insist on inviting some other former pastor to come back to do the funeral when you are the one who has provided all the pastoral care in recent months … but if not, I hope you will still be faithful in your ministry.

I hope that the people you serve respect and appreciate your families, encourage you to take a day off each week, appreciate your need for vacation, and value your own personal growth through continuing education and spiritual renewal times … but if not, I hope you will still be faithful in your ministry.

I hope that every one of your Vital Signs meet and exceed the goals you have set for your church, and that your congregations see those goals as opportunities to grow and expand ministry, to reach new people for Christ … but if not, I hope you will still be faithful in your ministry.

I hope that every appointment you receive from the Bishop and Cabinet is a perfect fit for your ministry gifts and skills, that it meets the needs of your family, that it fits the geography you prefer, and that it comes at just the right time in your ministerial career to help you grow and develop … but if not, I hope you will still be faithful in your ministry.

I even hope that I will be your bishop for the next four years and I get to watch your ministry grow and expand and be fruitful … but if not, I want you to know that I will still be watching and praying for your ministry.

Three names … three words.

There is a message there for you today. And I hope that those three names and three words “haunt” you and bless you for your entire ministry. Amen.