Reflections to start the week
Monday, December 1, 2014
Some thoughts on preaching
Pity the preacher whose gospel text concludes with the words: “Keep awake” as if boredom or even slumber will be the response of the congregation. Such was the plight of this preacher (and countless others) yesterday on the First Sunday of Advent, when the reading came from the 13th chapter of the gospel of Mark (see below). Preaching is challenging enough, as the preacher scales pulpit steps to hold forth “six feet above contradiction.” As Harvey Cox has noted: “The sermon is one of the last places in public discourse where it is culturally forbidden to talk back” (though he made that comment in the days before Twitter). It therefore easily becomes an opportunity for people to tune out. In my own preaching, I strive to apply the wisdom of Mark Twain who said that no sinner was saved after the first twenty minutes of a sermon. George Burns described a good sermon as having a strong beginning and a strong conclusion and not much in between. I’m personally guided by the wisdom of Charles Schulz who described cartooning as preaching. A favorite poem by George Herbert is called The Preacher. It compares the homilist to a stained glass window, and begins by asking: “How can a man preach God’s word? He is a brittle crazy glass.” On many Sunday mornings, that is how I feel.
This Monday morning, the first Monday in Advent, the call from Jesus to disciples is to keep awake, to be alert. That can be difficult on Sunday morning in a pew, when sleep deprivation or rambling sermonic thoughts or list of things to do can detract or distract. But keeping alert and staying awake can be even more difficult on Monday morning when routine, whatever it may be, sets us on autopilot. We may wonder if anything could ever be different in our lives, in our world. Mindful of that challenge, many faith traditions call us to mindfulness. In the wisdom of the Anglican tradition, that call gets expressed in the countercultural season we know as Advent. As the secular sector tells us to crank up activity, to get a lot of things done, our church dares us to slow down and be quiet, to be expectant about what God might actually do in our lives.
What would it mean to stay spiritually awake, to be alert to that possibility? It has to do with remembering who we are, and to whom we belong. Worship at its best helps with that. It has to do with paying attention to where we see God at work in the world. A good sermon can help that happen. It has to do with expecting God to do something new. That spirit of expectancy is a responsibility for each one of us. I recently spoke at the convention of the Diocese of North Carolina, led by Bishop Michael Curry, a great Episcopal preacher (No, that is not an oxymoron). His sermon to the most recent General Convention called us to be “Crazy Christians”, which is the title of a book he has written. Perhaps that craziness might come in intentional observance of Advent, in a commitment to slow down and be quiet. Bishop Curry has presented the following vision to his diocese. They are to be disciples making a difference. They are to expect something new. They are to be awake to that possibility.
Don’t think it can happen? Don’t think your life can be different? Don’t think the church, your faith, the scripture can be more relevant? Don’t think that the intractable problems we see around the world can shift? Jesus calls us (his disciples) to be crazy enough to believe that all of that is possible. He challenges us to stay alert, to keep awake for the new thing God will do, to expect something to happen.
Bishop Curry, at the convention last week, reminded us of a sermon given by Billy Sunday, one of the great preachers of the last century, who in 1919 said this: “If the Episcopal Church ever wakes up, look out Satan.” He said: “That moment is near. That moment is here.” Upon hearing Billy Sunday’s sermon, Dr. Ernest Stires, Rector of St. Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue said: “The church is awake. The church holds a position of power and influence. It must use its power to meet these needs, for the suffering, the wrong of the past is still here today, crying out to us. Children are still being slain by cruel Herods.” Jesus is calling us, the world is counting on us to keep awake. How will you do that?
– Jay Sidebotham
Jesus said: ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake-for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.
And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
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