Sunday, February 1, 2015

'Where God and Man have sat down'

What is appealing about sermons?  Today I have listened to 3 or 4 of them.  Now that I am retired I don’t have the weekly responsibility of preparing sermons.  I generally enjoyed the process of preaching. It is why I took my doctorate in it. But I like to listen to good sermons too.  I even go back and read some of the sermons of the great preachers not only of my tradition but others as well.

 Preaching isn’t what some lay folks think, a matter of talking off one’s head or out of one’s back pocket.  Preaching is a holy discipline of being willing to pay attention.  But it isn’t just a hyper-awareness; it is a programmed vigilance. It is programmed by the lectionary that keeps one connected to the readings of the Christian world but it is constantly changing by the events of the world and our lives.
I have never been one who could just pull out an old sermon and preach it.  Only when I was incapable of thinking when I was too sick for the synapses to fire did I ever repeat a sermon—themes, of course, theological points, sure. But I could never just pull up an old sermon and preach it.  It didn’t seem honest.

But now, when I listen to sermons, I long to hear the faith of the person preaching.  I don’t care about hearing a testimony. I don't want to just hear an interpretation of the passage.  I want to know if the person who is preaching really believes what s/he says.  I want to know if the passage that is being preached is something that made the preacher think.  Today, I have listened to Baptist, Methodist, Christian Science, Episcopal and a non-denominational mega feel good church and each one had a piece of the puzzle that God has for me today.  Some of it pulled me back into that comfortable rhythm of the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) and some of it was meditations on other texts.  

I remember Alec Baldwin saying that he went to a church (not the same one) every Sunday to listen to people who think.  I had never really thought about why people
listened to sermons.  It was a part of church going.  But now that I am listening, I too want to know what people think.  I want preachers who have bothered to prepare, have bothered to embrace either the Scripture or the topic.  I want to know that they have struggled with the things that are raised by an event, or better, how they have wrestled with the passage to glean some meaning for their lives as well as mine.

Rarely was I ever able to tell for whom a sermon was written.  Most of them were directed to me as much as anyone or any parish.  But occasionally, someone would say, “You were talking to me today”.  And I have even said the same to a preacher.  I always appreciated hearing that it had made an impact on someone, rather than “good sermon, Pastor.” 

But what does it mean for us when we do think about an issue.  Does it cause a change of behavior?  Not generally. But it starts the wheels rolling.  Sometimes, it does.  I still remember the sermon Dean Harvey Gutherie of EDS, a Scripture scholar, taking apart the prohibition of women speaking in Church in Timothy back in the ‘70’s.  And while I don’t remember exactly what he said, I knew what it meant when Scripture was 'opened' to me.  It felt like the top of my head had been opened to a new light and interpretation.  It opened me to the call I had been hearing but could not give myself permission to pursue.

Preaching is a holy discipline that requires not only struggle with Scripture but also a struggle with what is going on in the world and the particular world of the congregation.  The Bishop that ordained me, +Ned Cole, said one should preach with a
Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. No wonder I was always fatigued following preaching…struggling with so many things and pulling them together to make a coherent point.  

Today I come away from the lectionary readings with the sense that Jesus did not allow evil to speak in his hearing.  He silenced evil when he could.  He didn’t listen to the whine or the excuse.  He looked past it and called forth the goodness of the possessed.  That is a hard task, but it is one I want to hold on to today. 
I appreciate good preaching.  I appreciate the time and effort that others have given to the readings to make them come alive for me.  But like Alec Baldwin, I love to hear how people think.  It is the holy discipline—it is Incarnational theology at its best.  And like the Eucharist, it is ‘where God and Man [sic] have sat down.’