In a rousing sermon filled with memorable one-liners, Luke Powery, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, challenged those attending the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s 221st General Assembly (2014) to give “not just lip service but life service” to God.
His sermon, titled “What Should We Do?” was the centerpiece of a Motown-flavored worship service Friday morning that highlighted the host city of Detroit as the hometown of the soulful genre of music. The Band, a five-member ensemble from Grosse Ile Presbyterian Church, played music by Stevie Wonder for the call to worship and closing communion. Band members also added a Motown beat to their accompaniment of hymns sung by the congregation.
Powery introduced himself as “a Bapti-costal,” adding, “That means anything could happen.” Listeners interrupted his rapid-fire delivery several times with hearty laughter and applause.
Preaching on Luke 3:7–20, in which John the Baptist addresses his audience as “You brood of vipers,” Powery commented, “John must be having a pretty bad day. What kind of sermon introduction is that? . . . John wouldn’t be your first choice to run a church-growth campaign.”
However, Powery continued, “John is not concerned about building a spiritual fan club.” He brought to his listeners “a tough word but a truthful one. His message is not cheap grace. He was tired of Jesus-talk without Jesus-walk.”
John the Baptist challenged his listeners, who smugly identified themselves as “children of Abraham,” to “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” In other words, “Don’t rely on the past, on the good old days,” Powery said. “Don’t rely on someone else to bear fruit that only you can bear.”
And don’t bear bad fruit either, he added. Don’t preach a message of hate. Don’t say, “I’m pro-life – except for the death penalty.” Don’t be the person who “says one thing in the pulpit and another in everyday life.”
Prayer without prayerful action is “the source of an anorexic faith,” Powery said. “Bearing no good fruit leads to spiritual death.”
Confronted by John’s tough message, “the crowd asks the right question,” Powery said. They asked, “What shall we do?” And John gave them “a very practical response – not like the committee meeting where we talk about the last committee meeting,” Powery said and chided his listeners, “Come on, Presbyterians!”
John’s response, in essence, is “Don’t be greedy.” He wants those being baptized in the River Jordan to understand that “baptism is linked to witness in the world,” Powery said. “It has to do with social and economic justice. We are plunged into a new way of living that is active in the world.”
In his final statement, John points to Jesus, Powery said. This means we should “be careful not to focus on human agency at the expense of Christology.”
We cannot bear fruit on our own, Powery said. But John’s words remind us: “Jesus has done so much for us, we can’t help but do for others.”