Sermon of the Week
Elements of Worship:
God Speaks — The Word
Keywords: sermon, revelation, The Word, long talks, nature, The Bible.
It wasn’t that long ago
that my kids described what I do for a living as “giving long talks.”
It was a clarifying moment.
A pastor’s work is more than preaching
but maybe the most visible work is here, during these 20 minutes
when scripture is read
and the preacher climbs into a pulpit
or stands before an audience assembled
and dares to venture a holy word.
I’m not kidding, this is an audacious thing to ask of any person
and every preacher worth her salt that I’ve ever heard or met or known
does this with no small amount of trepidation, with an extra dash of hope
that they don’t mess it up too badly.
I mean, because, who can truly speak a word from God?
Preachers, to be sure, know that we’re just human beings,
that we are often asking the selfsame questions you are,
that no matter how many times people tell me
that I better be praying
so that the rain will keep away from the big event next week,
or ask me if I’ve been using that special telephone-line-to-God in my office…
we know all too well that we’re just like you in that regard.
In our tradition, our preachers are called teaching elders
people like any other,
who study and prepare and develop a set of skills,
and then are thrown into this unlikely task
not unlike a mother bird sometimes pushes her chick over the edge
and hopes she’ll figure out one way or another how to fly.
And, truth be told,
I don’t much trust preachers who never experienced any of that,
but who always felt that they were gifted, chosen, the mouthpiece of the Lord.
The biblical authors,
when they give examples of God
seeking to communicate
what’s going on in God’s mind,
sometimes they stir up a cloud, you know,
beckon people up to a mountain top,
offer up an angelic messenger or two
sometimes accompanied by the heavenly host…
all of this awe inspiring, to say the least.
And when human beings were singled out for this task
they weren’t so sure about it.
Moses. Jeremiah. Noah.
Most of them ran at the thought.
But since Pentecost, at least,
the followers of Jesus have been entrusted, somehow,
with the task of listening for a word from God,
and then trying to faithfully share that word with others.
When I try to describe my preparation for this sort of thing
I sometimes fail to have words for it.
It took a long time, maybe years,
for me to feel comfortable in a pulpit
but I never feel too comfortable.
I think that’s because of what preaching is.
Preaching is a task that requires, at one and the same time,
honesty, humility, and assertiveness:
–truth telling, when people need to hear what is going on,
and sometimes don’t want to hear it…
–an awareness of our individual limitations and finite perspective,
so that we know, as we prepare, as we speak,
that what we offer isn’t the final word on the subject,
— and conviction, nevertheless, that this is what I hear God saying, today,
and I can’t not talk about it.
You’ve heard that song “How can I keep from Singing?”
There’s something like that with this exercise, every week, for the one tasked with offering a sermon.
The main tools of a preacher.
And in our tradition, that’s not enough.
We rely on God,
to inspire the preacher
in the questions he asks
the research she does
the preparation undertaken
and the courage to preach…
but more than that
we rely on God to open the heart and the ear of the listener
so that they might consider what is offered
mull it over, wrestle with it
agree here, disagree there
and in that engagement, experience a Word from the Lord.
It is never the belief that you have to just absorb what is being preached,
never question it, never challenge it.
No. You let it work on you, and see where you come out on the other side…
That’s what’s going on, here, in THIS moment,
when we listen for God speaking, and consider what we’re going to do about it…
There are these memes on social media
maybe you’ve seen them on Facebook,
where they show various pictures about a particular profession with the captions:
What my friends think I do.
What my mom thinks I do.
What the world thinks I do.
What I think I do.
What I usually do…
That sort of thing.
I’ve seen them for nurses, anesthesiologists, civil engineers, wedding photographers.
Here’s the one for preachers:
The box that says “What my friends think I do”
has a guy leaning back with his laptop open
while he has his feet on the desk.
The box that says “What my mom thinks I do”
is a picture of Charlton Heston as Moses,
parting the Red Sea in the movie The Ten Commandments.
Pretty accurate for what my mom thinks I do…
The box “What I think I do”
has a black-and-white picture of a lone speaker CAPTIVATING a crowd of thousands.
And the box “What I usually do”
has a speaker talking to a few people, mostly uninterested
almost all of them asleep, with their head on the table.
I laugh at this all the time.
The truth of the matter is that preaching matters a lot to our community.
It is not the preacher that matters,
please don’t misunderstand me
but the word proclaimed. That matters. A lot.
We build the worship services around it, actually:
there’s the movement where we gather together
through a call to worship, reminding us that God is God and we are not
and a prayer of confession and an assurance of forgiveness,
practices that get us ready for listening for and telling the truth
important preparation for what comes next in the worship service.
We then read from scripture and offer a reflection on it that we call a sermon,
offered by someone who works on it
hopefully through study and prayer and some experience in wrestling with it…
in our tradition,
that preacher often needs some knowledge of the original languages of the bible
the ability to situate the reading in a cultural and historical context
and often a very stuffy Geneva robe to wear…
(I kid about that last part).
From there, everything in our worship service
is seen as a response to the word of God proclaimed:
prayer and offering and sacrament and dismissal out into the world
forever changed by God’s message of love and hope and challenge and possibility.
It is a rather audacious thing
whether you’re the preacher, or the listener
trying to discern a word from God.
But it is this practice, every Sunday,
that orients our hearts and our minds to the living presence of God in the world.
But isn’t it enough to just read the Bible myself? You might wonder.
Can’t I gather an appreciation of the grandeur of God in the beauty of the sunrise
or the amazing, awe inspiring power of a starry sky
somewhere out, away from the haze of the city lights
when all you see are thousands and thousands of galaxies above?
When I feel the rhythms of thousands of people at a rock concert, or a football game
doesn’t that inspire in me something of the goodness of God, or of humanity,
or of something bigger than myself?
Isn’t that enough?
Or, to put it another way,
what makes this moment of reading scripture together
and experiencing a sermon, together, different, important, essential?
Are we to say that we don’t get a sense of God from those other experiences?
No, of course not.
God isn’t confined to this hour.
We all experience God everyday
in thousands of experiences and in myriad moments
at work or at play, in our homes or on vacation
or in the hospital or watching the news.
We DO, in fact, get something theological, mystical, God-revealing
through the sunrise or the starry sky
or the look of a newborn when you see them for the first time
or the movement of a concert.
Because God is there, in the middle of all of that.
The theological word we use to describe how we engage and experience God
It means something about God is made known to us.
Revealed to us. Made comprehensible to us.
There is something revelatory in our day to day living.
We CAN see the hand of God in creation.
We CAN observe the power of love
the role of redemption
the possibility of forgiveness in the people we encounter,
and we can be moved by those things
see in them something beautiful and good and true.
One of the reasons that we started today
with this long reading from the book of Genesis,
is to stress how the God who created all things
left her fingerprints in all of the things she created:
the rhythm of time and space
the beauty and wonder of our planet and its creatures
even our own bodies, joyfully and wonderfully made.
We DO, in fact, see something of God in all of this.
But what we see is limited, general. Finite.
It helps us appreciate, perhaps, our place in all of this.
It may lead us to believe in a higher power,
a spiritual dimension to existence, or the like.
For some of us, it may lead us to a faithful disposition
difficult questions, curiosities about why this, and not that….
what does the mosquito tell us about God, I wonder?
The way we humans have impacted our planet
the planet given to us to till and to keep and to protect, according to Genesis
may lead us to wonder more deeply
about what that God is up to, anyway
how that God could let things get so messed up down here
not just with our planet,
but among the earth’s people, in our individual lives and relationships too.
It is hard to glean from any of these aspects
of our engagement with general revelation, our experience of God in nature,
it is hard to glean from any of it a vision for hope,
that is, a sense that something BETTER is possible.
For that, we need an extra word, a particular word
a more concrete revelation.
And, for those of us who are inspired by the life and ministry of Jesus
HE is that particular word, that concrete revelation.
We call this a special revelation
the way that God doesn’t just show something about Godself
through nature, or the everyday,
but where God takes it upon Godself
to communicate something to us.
To share something important for us.
To re-orient our living in a new and particular way
that we don’t just get from going about our daily business
and looking at a pretty sunset,
a re-orientation that helps us experience our daily business,
that pretty sunset, in a whole new light:
one particularly defined by the amazing gift of God through Jesus Christ.
Revelation doesn’t confirm what we think we already know.
It is a knowledge of God that, by its very nature, teaches us
expands our understanding.
As one of my favorite mentors once put it:
it is as if God takes a group of people who are thinking about brunch
and smacks them upside the head with glory….
And we think this happens
through engagement with a particular collection of books
that record the experience of this God over time among a particular people
we call those books The Bible,
the written Word that points to Jesus Christ, the living Word.
But it is not just any engagement with those books:
it is a study of that book
in community, along-side others
surrounded by prayer and activities like singing and silence
that focus our hearts and our minds on the God we find there.
The preached word follows along the lines of the author of First John
when he says:
We declare to you what was from the beginning,
what we have heard,
what we have seen with our own eyes,
what we have looked at and touched with our own hands,
concerning the word of life.
A sermon is our effort to do that together:
to look at what was revealed to us
in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Did you hear how the author talked about all of this?
First John describes that work as JOYFUL.
It creates FELLOWSHIP, or a better translation would be community,
a community centered around the life of Jesus as a way for us to understand
God the Father, as the author put it,
and through that to find eternal life.
It is THIS moment that helps us hear what we need to hear:
that God loves us, and that we matter
amid the sea of stars and sunsets and daily chaos of our world;
that there are people who have been inspired by this God…
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Ruth, Esther, Mary, Peter, and so many others
that they dedicated their life for a PURPOSE:
to bring food to the hungry
water for the thirsty
companionship for the imprisoned
care for the widow, the orphan, the foreigner
challenge to systems of oppression
a purpose in life to find our place in a world where God has a plan
and we have a role to play within it.
It is THIS moment where we hear
that we are good enough,
even if we don’t believe we are
even if we don’t think we are perfect enough,
or gifted enough,
or loved enough,
we hear, in THIS moment,
the voice of a God who tells us that we are loved, unconditionally,
and that God has given us gifts and skills and abilities
that make us uniquely us
so that we can use those gifts to help others live better, healthier, stronger lives.
It is in THIS moment where we find a challenge to our longing
just to be uplifted and comforted,
but instead hear a call to do more,
to try harder,
to do something, for God’s sake,
because God believes that we can be her hands and feet in this world.
That’s what the Sermon is supposed to do for us,
it is supposed to help us hear a SPECIAL word from God
something you’re not going to get without opening up yourself for it
by making an effort
getting out of bed
downing a cuppa joe
and joining some other everyday people
to listen to an extraordinary idea:
that in Jesus Christ we are all one,
and we carry Christ’s name out in to the world
ready to share God’s love with everyone we meet.
Maybe now you get a sense of why this is
such a preposterous thing to try to do in the first place.
But we are a preposterous people,
with a preposterous story:
a stumbling block and foolishness to some, says the Apostle Paul,
that Love is stronger than Death
that God shows us a new form of power
rooted in compassion rather than in domination.
Somehow, God enables us to gather
and to listen and to hear and to understand
when we gather for Worship on Sunday
so that we can go out from this place
and interpret what we see in our day to day lives
as this God talking to you and to me.
May we, my friends,
try to listen for that living Word in our lives
so that we can hear it and be transformed by it
assured of our place as beloved children of God
challenged to serve in Jesus name
enlivened by the presence of the holy spirit among us.
All that, from a sermon,
from one of those “long talks,” as my kids used to call it?
Maybe. Hopefully so.
And if so, it’ll be because God does it.
Thanks be to God.
Image: The Most Reverend Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, preaching at the wedding of Prince Harry of Wales and Meghan Markle.