Sermons of Jefferis Kent Peterson 1985-2015
Here is a sample of a sermon about Little Whitey, a dock worker I met on the Boston Commons in the Fall of 1977 while working at Park Street Church as a sexton.
A Season of Penance
Luke 18: 9-14 Ebenezer Pres. Church, Sermon no. 72 February 23,1986
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
I think many people come to a point in their life when they realize there is a difference between the days when they believed in Jesus and The Day they decided to follow him. For example, some people grow up in the church, but they take God for granted. They may go to church, but they still live the way they want to. God just does not seem very important to everyday life. Then one day, a crisis comes: they are caught stealing, or someone they love dies or gets sick; maybe God saved them from a car accident, or maybe they finally see what their alcoholism is doing to their life and to their loved ones. Whatever it is… suddenly, God becomes the most important thing in their lives, and they want to change. They no longer just believe he is there, now he has become real. And now they want to follow him and do what is pleasing to him.
For me, it was a little different. I did not grow up believing in anything, so I was not able to take God for granted. When I met Jesus, he was a new and powerful force in my life; so I could not just treat God like furniture. I had been living a fairly corrupt life, so when I found out how real he was, I wanted to change. I wanted to please Him… For a time I followed the rules, but then after some hardships, some struggles, and some pain I had not expected or desired, I fell back into some of my old habits. And I pursued sin with a vengeance for about 5 years. He did not love me any less, but I surely could not feel his love for me during that time. Finally, as I began to see the mess I was making of my life and all the ugliness that surrounded me, despair filled my heart. I had reached a point of crisis and decision.
It was at this time friends began to tell me of the power of God that is available to you when you are baptized into the power of the Holy Spirit. I had been trying to live by Jeff power, and it was failing. I was running my life, but I was ruining it at the same time. Since, God was offering me a power that was greater than my own, I was eager for freedom and for a fresh cleansing from sin. So one day, at my request, my friend laid hands upon me and prayed for me to be baptized with the Holy Spirit. I had not been able to do cleanse my heart of its lusts and passions by my own strength, but now, by the strength of God's unlimited power, he had promised to do in me what I could not do for myself. So I asked my friend to pray.
Well, after my friend prayed for me, I felt this strange peace, and I knew that God had done something. And I looked about me, and thought, well now that I am going to be obedient, what does God want me to do? And I thought, well he must want me to go up to strangers on street corners and tell them about Jesus….
Now, you must understand, I had no idea what I was doing. I only knew from the example of the Christians in the Bible that every time they were filled with the Spirit, they gave witness and testimony. They were inspired by God to preach the Word of Jesus. So, I thought to myself, that is what all Christians who are newly filled with the Spirit and his power are supposed to do. So here I am, standing on the corner of the Boston Commons, next to the subway entrance where my friend and I had been praying, surrounded by commuters, winos and derelicts, thinking to myself that I am supposed to witness for Jesus right here. So I walk up to the first person I meet and say, "do you believe in Jesus?" And the man looks me in the eye with a smile and says, "Never met a man who was half a man who didn't."
Now this ragged and unshaven man looked like he needed salvation, but that was to my self-righteous eyes. I thought I had been called to witness, but the Lord had actually called me to be quiet and listen. And I listened for an hour as the man told me his story.
"My name is 'Little Whitey,'" he said, "and I come from the school of hard knocks. I never asked for the life I have been given, but I've made the best of it and I've done the best I can. I grew up on the south-side in the slums, and I spent four years in the Navy during the war. And afterwards, I worked on the docks as a longshoreman. They called me "Little Whitey" because I am short, but they found I am the equal of any man. And though I know the Lord says I shouldn't, I've had to fight a lot in my life. I never went looking for a fight, you understand, but they always seemed to come looking after me. Braggarts and bullies would picked on me because of my size. And though I didn't usually start the fights, I would usually finish them. And the only thing that's got me this far is Jesus. He's got me through the war and through these hard knocks. And that is the reason I never met a man who is half a man who didn't believe in him. I may not always live the way I should, but I'm doing the best I can," he said to me.
And as I sat there an listened to him tell me his tale I looked down his arm and saw on his wrist a while and green plastic hospital ID tag that he never bothered to take off. For you see, Little Whitey was a regular in the hospital. He was an alcoholic. And the police, out of kindness, would keep bringing him back to the hospital every few days to give him a place to stay while he dried out.
And as I sat there an listened, the Lord showed me how much he loved this man, whom all the world despised. For Whitey had not made lots of money, nor had he been a great preacher like Billy Graham, nor had he been responsible for a family or a farm. He hadn't done anything productive, as we would call it, with his life. He had not spread the faith of Jesus. But God poured his love for that man into my heart, for the Lord was trying to teach me something. And the Lord said to me, "You know, Jeff, the difference between this man and the best of men is no difference to me. For everyone has sinned in my eyes, and all are equally corrupt. He may not have been obedient, and he may have wasted his life, but he at least sees himself for what he is, while all those so-called "good Christians" who go to the respectable church down the street, cannot see that they are no better in my eyes than he. I have been trying to break into their hearts and into their church for fifty years, but they will not let me in because of their pride, while this man, who has done nothing good at all with his life at least realizes that he needs me!"
And I want to tell you my friends, maybe you are not living the way you should. Maybe you have not repented and become obedient. Or maybe, like the Pharisee, you are too proud to see how much you lack. But I want you to realize that no matter how good or bad you are; God cares not for our human distinctions, whether you are Billy Graham or a skid row bum, God loves you just the same. God's love is not more measured or less given for our human accomplishments, but in a strange and merciful way, he loves losers more, for they know they have nothing to offer. They can only hide their eyes in shame. For it is to the humble that God gives comfort, not to those who are finely dressed and who see no need to repent.
God is exceedingly merciful to those who are sorrowful. If you struggle with uncleanness within; if you are ashamed of your thoughts, God is merciful towards you and has forgiven you. Even if you have committed the worst of sins, he loves you. He loves you no matter what you do. You may say, "I do not feel God's forgiveness and mercy. All I feel is alone and estranged." But remember, the tax-collector could not feel God's love either; all he knew was his shame, but he was justified. So even if you do not feel God's presence, your sorrow and shame will set you right with him….
During this season of penance, let us look to our own sins, and count the blessing of God's mercy, who has forgiven us of everything we have ever done. And let us thank him for his kindness which leads us to repentance, knowing that he loves us no matter what we do.