These days I listen to sermons more often than preach them. There was a time when that would have been difficult for me. I was preaching virtually every Sunday, sometimes three times: the same sermon twice in the morning and a different sermon in the evening. When I was not preaching, I didn’t want to hear a sermon from someone else, and on the occasions when I did, I was often far too critical, thinking of all the ways that I might have preached the same text.
That’s no longer true for me. I listen differently these days, waiting for a thought to catch me and carry me into a place that I have not been before. I don’t need someone—a preacher—to tell what to think. I need engagement with the text, metaphor, wonder—something that hooks me.
Barbara Brown Taylor in one of her books says that it’s the job of the preacher to walk listeners up to the edge of mystery but never to walk them over—to walk them over destroys the mystery. The sermons I can’t abide are those that destroy the mystery. I leave on those days dispirited, less able to believe than when I came in.
I’ve heard read at Easter time John Updike’s “Seven Stanzas for Easter.” I may have read the poem myself. If so, I repent of it. The first of the seven stanzas establishes the theme:
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
This is so much nonsense. The New Testament says nothing of this kind. The Easter stories are filled with mystery. People don’t immediately recognize Jesus. He is mistaken for a gardener by Mary Magdalene and as a clueless traveler by two disciples on the way to Emmaus. He’s not there, then he is there, and then gone again, without explanation. He shows up unexpectedly on a beach in the early morning cooking fish. All quite mysterious.
Paul, reflecting on resurrection, the resurrection of Jesus and our own, says as much. He asks the sort of how question Updike was fixed on in his poem (1 Corinthians 15:35), only to reject it. “How foolish,” he says and goes on to talk about heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, physical bodies and spiritual bodies (1 Corinthians 15:44). No rekindling amino acids here. The New Testament walks us up to the edge of mystery, but never walks us over.
What I need in sermons and in the liturgy is to grasp the slender strand of a thought that may take me where I have never gone before. Many years ago, when I was still a young preacher, an older, much-respected member of my congregation said to me: Clay, as I listen to your sermons, something you say will catch me, and then I’m off riding that thought wherever it may take me. I may eventually come back to where you have gotten to in the sermon, or I may not. Now, I’m that old man, snagged mid-sermon by a thought that leads me out, perhaps in a direction quite different from the direction the preacher is going. It’s okay. At that point the preachers have done their job.
This works better if the scriptures are actually read in the service. I point this out because any number of “Bible churches” hardly read scripture at all. In those churches, the preacher may cite scripture in the sermon, name a text or two or more, claim the Bible for sermon support, but little scripture is read.
This is not true for churches with the tradition of following the lectionary. In those churches each week substantial passages are read, including on most Sundays the Old Testament, a psalm, an Epistle passage, and a Gospel passage. Time is taken in the service first to read the Bible without comment or interpretation, and then and only then for the preacher to address the readings, complicate them, respond to what we have heard.
You see the difference. In the so-called “Bible churches,” the sermon is everything. It’s what the preacher says that matters. An old church leader used to call the liturgy leading up to the sermon “the preliminaries.” He often delayed coming to church so he could slip in just before the sermon started.
In churches that read the scriptures—especially if they read several different passages from different parts of the Bible, as do churches that follow the lectionary—the congregation hears the Bible before the preacher says anything about it. It gives congregants time to think about the scriptures, ponder them, consider how they relate to each other, what they might mean.
One Lent, the psalm—I don’t remember which psalm it was—had the theme of justice. The choir chanted the verses of the psalm. We, the congregation, recited an antiphon at the beginning and end of the psalm, and several times in the middle. The antiphon was, as I recall, “I give gladly to the poor.”
As I recited the antiphon and heard the psalm chanted, I thought to myself, “Do I?” “Do I give gladly to the poor?” I wasn’t sure I did. As a matter of fact, I knew that often I didn’t. Even when I gave to the poor, I did not do so gladly.
In the manner of the lectionary, the psalm was surrounded with other passages about justice. By the end of the readings, I felt convicted by the Word. I don’t remember the message that day. It doesn’t matter. The sermon was preached—in the readings. I left having encountered the Holy God.
Usually, the encounter with the scriptures is not so dramatic as that. A couple of weeks ago, the Old Testament reading was from Isaiah 6, the story of the call of Isaiah. In Isaiah’s vision, the temple opens up, and the Lord appears seated on the throne. The cherubim surrounding the throne chant, “Holy, holy, holy, Yhwh of Hosts.” Isaiah, terrified, cries out, “Woe is me, for I am undone. I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips, and I with own eyes have seen the King, Yhwh of Hosts” (Isaiah 6:5). An altogether stunning vision.
The gospel the same day was the Lukan version of the story of the call of Peter (Luke 5:1-11), a story told with a keen sense of humor. Jesus is preaching on the shore of Galilee, and he needs space. The crowd is getting too close, pushing him towards the water. Jesus summons Peter—someone he already knows—to bring over his boat so he can row Jesus out a bit from the shore and give him space from the crowd. In my imagination, I see Peter sitting in the boat, rowing just enough to keep Jesus an appropriate distance from the shore. He’s barely paying attention. This is something he can do without thinking.
And so it goes until the sermon is over, and Jesus turns to Peter and commands him to go deeper. This is what happens in the life of discipleship. You begin with something simple, something you can easily do, and just when you are comfortable, you hear the Lord saying, “Go deeper.”
Peter has no desire to do so. It’s been a long night; he’s caught nothing. But for the sake of Jesus, he rows out into the deeper part of the lake and lets down the net. The net immediately fills with fish, so many he can’t haul them in by himself. At that point Peter falls on his knees and says, “Get away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
I had not noticed until I heard the Isaiah passage and the Luke passage read side-by-side that Peter is citing Isaiah. No temple opening up here, of course, no cherubim singing, “Holy, holy, holy”; just fish. And Jesus. But in that moment, Peter, for whom fish has been his life, sees the glory and falls to his knees, saying that he is unworthy of the one who occupies the boat with him.
In hearing this, the question I asked myself is where in my ministry I have encountered the abundance of God in a way that caused me to fall on my knees, knowing that I am unworthy. I can think of some. Births. Worship. The congregation singing certain songs. Funerals. Especially funerals.
One that comes to mind was for a man who lived long and well with Down Syndrome. In the funeral, friends of his, some also with Down Syndrome, some with other conditions that limited their mobility and speech, came to the front of the church, often on the arm of a caregiver, and talked about their friend. There was an abundant holiness in that room. I Iistened with awe and appreciation, knowing that I was unworthy of these saints and of this God.
I go to church now to listen. I go eagerly, waiting for the moment in the service when something—a word, an image, a song, a moment in the liturgy—snags me, and I find myself again in the presence of the holy God. And when that happens, I, like Isaiah and Peter think to myself, “I am unworthy of all this.”