(a sermon for September 30, 2018, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost; fourth in a series, based on Deuteronomy 6:1-9 and Romans 10:8-18)
Under the heading of not-so-vital statistics, out of curiosity this week I went to my pastoral records and discovered that as of this morning I will have preached a grand total of 1,697 sermons as a minister and teacher of the gospel.
Now, this number mostly accounts for Sunday morning services over thirty-plus years working in the church, and doesn’t include all the eulogies, wedding meditations or other messages that we pastors tend to bring to various and a sundry church and community gatherings. But even considering that, all things being relatively equal, understand that this represents a total of over 34 thousand minutes – that’s 566 hours, folks (!) – standing behind some pulpit or another preaching a sermon that for better or worse I had spent most of the previous week preparing (I don’t even want to think about how many hours that entailed!). And I realize that’s a whole lot of time spent not only by me, but also by you and by so many others who have sat in these pews listening to what I’ve had to say week in and week out; so let me just take this opportunity to say thank you for your patience!
What’s interesting is that while I certainly can’t give you specifics as to the subject and content of every one of those sermons, there are some that I do remember very, very well. I’ll never forget, for instance, the first sermon I ever preached as a pastor of a congregation: it was entitled “I’m No Hero,” with the main illustration having to do with a television show that was running at the time about a reluctant superhero (and to this, I can only say, Oy veh, what was I thinking?) More seriously, though I will always remember preaching the Sunday after 9/11 when all of us – pastor and congregation were clamoring for a word of hope in those very sad and uncertain days. There were also a couple of messages over the years when I felt particularly compelled, albeit somewhat fearfully so, to bring forth some measure of biblical truth in the midst of some rather contentious situations within the congregations I was serving at the time. And there have been a few times when despite my own best efforts but by a great abundance of God’s grace sometimes the truth that needed to be espoused at a given moment actually got spoken aloud and even better, was heard with open ears and loving hearts; and honestly, that’s pretty memorable and feels pretty good!
Preaching was one of the first things that attracted me to the ministry (way back in high school, if you can believe it!), and all these years later it still remains a favorite part of what I do. It can be exhilarating, fulfilling, often disconcerting, sometimes headache inducing and occasionally life-changing, all at the same time (!); but that’s what keeps this task of preaching a wonderfully exciting and utterly joyous thing for me! Of course, there is also many a Sunday morning that I step up here utterly unconvinced that there will be anything at all of value, spiritual or otherwise, coming forth from my tongue that day; but that’s a discussion for another time!
Either way, however, I will tell you that each and all of these preaching experiences have one thing in common: and it’s that each week, after the sermon has been written and preached and the service is finished, it’s immediately time to start the process all over again for next Sunday; part of what a colleague of mine refers to as “the pesky, perpetual, predictable and persistent return of the Sabbath!” You see, the truth is that a sermon, mine or anybody else’s, does not exist for the sake of itself – ultimately, it is not meant to exist as a stand-alone oration nor as some kind of pastoral dissertation on all things religious and theological – no, the sermon has always been intended to be but simply one facet of the whole “act and attitude of worship,” and as such is linked to everything else we do here in the midst of this service: our prayer and our praising, our times of singing and silence and sharing, and most profoundly in the reading of holy scripture. What I’m doing here, you see – and what we’re all involved in as we worship together – is nothing less than the “Proclamation of the Word:” God’s Word.
Our text this morning from Paul’s letter to the Romans actually begins and ends with this truth: first that “the word of faith that we proclaim” is near to us, “on [our] lips and in [our hearts],” and concluding with the assertion that “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.” What that means is that there is always to be a natural progression from acknowledging and embracing the faith that’s inside of us to being sent forth into the world to proclaim the truth of it in and through our very lives! And you’ll notice that by and large that’s also the direction that our worship takes: we begin with an act of praise (usually a song or a hymn, followed by a prayer of invocation) that serves to bring forth the faith within us so that it might become the praises of our hearts and voices; but eventually we pause to hear and to reflect upon God’s Word so that afterward, when the final hymn is sung and we say the benediction, we might be sent forth strengthened, encouraged and empowered to truly be God’s people in the world! So in many ways, it’s this “proclamation of the Word” – be it a sermon, a message or any one of a number of other forms of faithful communication – that makes this hour more than just a random group of people who come together on a Sunday morning to share a few moments of fellowship and inspiration for the living of these days; it’s that proclamation which truly sets us apart as the Body of Christ and what makes us the Church with a mission of love in the world!
And if you’re thinking right now that all this is a pretty tall order for any preacher (certainly, this preacher!) who is called to speak for 20 minutes, give or take, on a Sunday morning, you’re right. But remember also that the proclamation of which I speak has as much to do with hearing as it does speaking. As John Webster of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland has written, the church is “not first and foremost a speaking community but a listening community… the church speaks, because it has been spoken to.”
Faith, you see, comes from what is heard… and so what’s important about this part of the service, for me as well as for you, is listening!
It’s interesting to note the context in which Paul speaks to the Romans in our reading today is actually one of some level of frustration. Paul, you see, is anguishing over the fact that despite the truth of the resurrection, most Jews of the time were still seeking righteousness through the law for their salvation rather than through faith in Christ. For Paul this was inconceivable and what’s more, unnecessary: after all, there is “no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him… everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” But, and this is where Paul gets to the heart of the matter, “how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?” And “how can they hear if nobody tells them? And how is anyone going to tell them, unless someone is sent to do it?” [The Message]
It all comes down to the proclamation, you see; it’s all about “bringing the good news” to those who would have ears to hear! And let me tell you; the anguish that Paul was feeling for those who would not receive that graceful gift of salvation that comes in Christ remains the anguish in this day and age! I cannot begin to tell you the number of instances and number of people I meet who, once they realize what I do for a living, are very quick to dismiss what and who it is I represent. “I’m not really into religion,” they’ll say to me, or else something to the effect that while I seem like a nice guy and everything, they don’t want to come to church and be “preached at,” and I’m never sure how to respond to that except to explain that while that might be the “style,” shall we say, of others that’s not what we’re about as a church and certainly not what I’m about as a minister! I always come away from that kind of conversation not only feeling badly that I couldn’t “close the deal,” so to speak, but also wondering how people like that can come to faith in Christ when they’ve never truly heard that truth, that Word, proclaimed!
But then I remember that faith comes through hearing… and hearing the “proclamation of the Word” can take a variety of forms and comes from a variety of people.
Last week, what with the beginning of Sunday School, I found myself reminiscing about all the Vacation Bible Schools Lisa and I were involved in at various churches over the years. One year that I remember very well, the program happened to be centered around the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments. And I, in a shining example of casting against type, was drafted to play the role of Pharoah; which meant, of course, that all week I was generally and rather joyfully verbally and physically abused with all manner of plague, and, moreover, all that week every time a kid requested that I let God’s people go, I would have to vehemently and angrily refuse in a highly Shakespearean manner!
In truth, it was a lot of fun (as you know, I can be a ham at times!), the kids enjoyed it, and the great thing about VBS every year was that there were always a lot of kids there who weren’t part of our church, or any church for that matter. And to bear witness to what was often these kids’ very first awareness of God’s presence and power in their own lives was an amazing thing that got revealed to us in strange ways.
To whit, about six months later, I was volunteering at a story day at our local intermediate school; I’m walking down the corridor, guitar in hand, and way down the end of the hall I spy this little head bobbing in and out of the doorway of the school office. And as if he were doing a double take, a second later, out pops that head again, and smiling this incredible grin as he comes out to the hall, this boy spreads wide both his arms and cries out way too loudly, “LET MY PEOPLE GOOOO!!!”
They never asked me to volunteer at the school again… I don’t know why… (!)
Yes, it was one of those anonymous, “unchurched” kids who’d turned up at VBS the summer before, one of these children who’d heard this incredible story of God’s power and love for the first time, and six months later… not only remembered, and was still thinking about it! The whole thing made me laugh; but it also got me to thinking about how a little bit of good news was brought to that little one; how the Word was proclaimed and perhaps took root and grew in that very unique and special way.
Maybe it happens in a sermon; but it might also be revealed in a Sunday School story or a children’s ministry, or else a choir anthem or a prayer request shared; or for that matter, maybe it all happens in some random act of kindness or simply a kind word spoken at just the right time. But who knows how the word might actually be proclaimed until it happens? What is it that Frederick Buechner wrote about how the love of Lord gets through to those who seeking out faith? He says that for every believer, there’s this incredible moment of divine awareness when the love of the Lord has hit them from the top of their head to the tips of their toes. Who knows exactly when or where or how that may happen; but, Buechner writes, maybe for one seeker, “the moment that has to happen is YOU.”
And the point of all of this is that before that moment happens, you and I need to be here and worshiping, listening to God’s Word proclaimed; opening ourselves to the Spirit’s leading so that we might bring that good news with others. For we can never truly know the impact of speaking to others that which we’ve heard in faith and in love. What we all hear in this time of worship can be the very message that will change a heart forever; it can be the thing that will bring change and peace to a world in need of need of both!
So let us not hold back; let us go forth to share the truth that is ours in Jesus Christ. As it says in Deuteronomy about the commandments, “Recite them to your children, talk about them when are home, and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.” Truly, as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
Thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry