Friday, September 21, 2007

A Sermon Unpreached

So I was supposed to preach this Sunday. I was really struggling with the lectionary gospel text. J found this very astute interpretation over at my bud Dylan’s website. So I’ll let you read her if you want to know more about the parable.

As far as me goes, I don’t know what I’m doing yet. I have talked with J about co-preaching, I’ve talked with my priest about trying that too, with him. We’ve had some really good talks lately, and some misunderstandings as well. It’s been one of those weeks when I felt like I was really riding a rollercoaster with the Church – going back and forth between grace and insecurity. Not only my own little church, but the whole shebang. It’s really hard to jump into this ministry thing when you start seeing what might lie ahead: confusion, misunderstandings, criticism. It’s impossible not to be on display as a priest or pastor. And it’s something I’m figuring out I will struggle with, because I’m quite thin-skinned. I don’t mind not being strong: my weakness just offers God the opportunity to shine through. But I wonder how it might affect others’ view of me.

At any rate, I had written the following sermon (which has been revised somewhat to take out personal information) a couple days ago, and at the advice of others have decided that now is not the time to preach it. I love much of what I say, though, and I want to preach it – not exactly as is, but bits of it – at some future occasion. A lot of what I say I’d like to tell Fuller. And a lot of it is a love letter to my church, though they may not have interpreted it that way right now. What I didn’t wish it to be was something that would focus on me instead of God, but I guess that’s where it strayed to. It’s not gospel-centric enough to work in my current context. But maybe someday I can put these ideas out there. And in the meantime, I offer it to you (the beginning is a bit rough because I chopped up my intro; just enjoy the liturgical stuff, that’s the main meat of it).

Liturgy with Crash Helmets

Our collect this morning reminded us “not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure.” What shall endure? What are the heavenly things we should love?

The things that endure are the things that are essential to our life as Christians, to us as a community. Without them, we do not function properly as God’s children, and we do not show evidence of the Holy Spirit in our midst.

Jesus tells us “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.” How we handle these essentials is the clue, for God, to how we will handle whatever “true riches” he may give us.

Two weeks ago you’ll remember that I left during the worship service, during the creed. You may also remember that on that Sunday, things had gotten experimental as we changed the order of the liturgy. After the processional we were led directly into the reading of the gospel, and then invited silence and listening to the text. I want to explain to you what happened for me that morning.

What had upset me was that we had skipped the part of the service in which we ask God to be there. We had skipped the invocation of the Holy Spirit, which we usually say in the first collect, the one that asks God to “Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your name.” And we had skipped our blessing on the Lord: “Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” And we had skipped our opening collective prayer, before which the priest says, “The Lord be with you,” and we all respond, “And also with you,” which is our way of telling him or her it’s okay to pray on our behalf. With those powerful words we are calling down God to be in our service, to come alive in our hearts, and to be on the lips of the one leading us into worship.

We didn’t do any of these things. And consequently, we didn’t publicly invite God to join us in our time together. If we are going to have private prayer time, we can do that at home or anywhere. There is no reason for us to gather on Sunday morning for personal quiet time with God. We gather together to do the things we can’t do alone: those essentials that are not possible except with one another. Things like publicly invoking God’s Spirit into our midst. Like hearing the Word of God proclaimed in our hearing. Like saying the psalm back and forth to one another. Like offering our petitions and intercessions, so that they become the burdens of all of us. Like celebrating one another’s birthdays and anniversaries. Like sharing the bread and wine that forms us into the body of Christ. Like singing together. Like passing the peace. We can even share a silence together that is qualitatively different from what we experience on our own.

The things we do together before the gospel reading and homily are the things that set the stage for us to be able to hear the Word: We gather. We ask God to be present with us. We pray for guidance. We set the gospel in the context of the Old Testament and epistle. We offer praise or lamentation with a psalm. All of these are setting the stage: they are preparing our ears and minds and hearts to hear from God. Without them, we hear from a human being. I know that I don’t want to be that person. None of us up here wants to speak on our own behalf. We only want to open our mouths and allow God’s words to come out.

The reason I was troubled was because we had not invited God to be with us that morning. We had not been brought into the time of worship with a public invocation and the words that bind us together. We did not do the liturgy: the liturgy which is the work of this people, the life-giving words and actions which have grown up over 75 years. The liturgy isn’t something that reflects any one person’s personal tastes. It has roots in this community. It has been born of decades of faithful listening and responding to the presence of God in the midst of this place.

When I came here, I joined the flowing stream that is the Spirit’s movement at this church. I ride along on the current of what you all have created together. And when we did not have that, I felt lost. I felt as if the liturgy – which comes from a Greek word, leitourgia, which originally meant “work of the people” – I felt as if your work had been lost. What God has done in our midst over seven decades is reflected when we pray our way. We are a people with history. And it’s not just this parish’s rich history – it’s a history that goes back 2000 years – no, actually, back to the beginning of time, when God first conversed with human beings. Some of our liturgical prayers and blessings are from the Roman era, some of our practices come to us from Judaism. We have a lot of history.

And when we wait for the truth – when we sit through these other parts of the service – we acknowledge our place in history. We recognize that others came before us. We listen to them in the words of the prayers and the scriptures. When we do not, we lose their community – we lose the community of saints, the great cloud of witnesses around us who cheer us on as we journey through this life. Without acknowledging our history, we are in danger of elevating one person’s preference above the whole great communion of Christ’s Church, worldwide and across time. I left, because I was hurting for our lost work and our lost community.

We need context in the Service of the Word, and to remember always to offer the prayers and readings which have become the lifeblood of this community’s worship. They are the context in which this community prepares itself to hear the Word proclaimed, to be confronted with the truth of the gospel. That morning had a difficult gospel; so is this morning’s. But the steps we take together, on our journey to the gospel reading and the homily, prepare us for what we will hear, prepare us to hear and wrestle with the text together.

One writer says, “Christians believe that truth always needs an introduction.” The gospel needs to be couched in prayer, praise, blessing, thanksgiving, song, history, and mystery. The Truth of God can be a hard pill to swallow; and the harder it is, the more important the preparation becomes. We put the words from the preacher, and the words from Jesus, into the context of worship, of praise, of God’s faithfulness, by inviting the Spirit, blessing God, praying together, and listening to the scriptures.

These things matter. They are what we have created together, with God, to prepare us to meet God week after week. What any one of us wants or prefers – that’s not essential. That’s not what matters. What matters is that which brings us closer to our heavenly Father.

The time of preparation is not peripheral. These elements are not window dressing. They are not things we do to pass the time, or because we’ve always done them. They are taking us, step by step, closer to being prepared for a face-to-face encounter with Jesus. They open our ears and our minds and our hearts to Him. We cannot jump straight into encounter with God – that would be like diving into a very cold pool. And we can’t demand instant access to God – God will only come when invited, when asked. It’s a dance, really: an intimate series of moments in which we draw ourselves close to the Lord of the Universe. Who also happens to be our Abba.

And really, we need all this preparation for our own safety. The writer Annie Dillard says if people really expected to meet God on Sunday, we’d all be wearing crash helmets in church. Like I said last time I preached, God isn’t safe. But God is very good. And we come to God through a series of signs, words, and gestures that remind us who we are, who God is, and how that incredible, mysterious connection happens between us. And then it does.

And in a very intimate way, God reaches out to us and offers himself for our taking. We hear the gospel, in the scriptures and homily. And we enact the gospel, as we pray, forgive, reconcile, and pass the peace. But we see the gospel, and we touch it, and we even taste it, when we come to this altar and eat and drink. When we join the heavenly banquet, which is God’s love made visible. Made accessible. Made free and bountiful. When you are handed the elements of communion, you hold God’s love – God’s deep, abiding, undying, unfathomable, unbreakable love – in the palm of your hand.

And then you put it in your mouth, and you swallow it, and that love quite literally becomes part of you. God communes with you, physically, spiritually.

Jesus is God’s Word become Flesh. Jesus’ Flesh is Food indeed.

The Eucharist meal is God’s Word to our bodies, just as the Scripture and homily are God’s word to our minds. Our fellowship is God’s word to our hearts, and our praise and petitions are God’s word to our spirits.

All around us is the Word of God, the utterance of the Holy One that makes all things new. We cannot escape it, here in this place.

We should all be wearing crash helmets.


Stasi said...

The more I think about this, the more I think this will be a lecture or an essay one day. It's not much of a sermon - not much gospel in there - but it's definitely, IMHO, a case for liturgy.

janinsanfran said...

FWIW, I like your case for liturgy very much.