Will you pray with me:
Gracious God, through the written word, and through the spoken word, may we behold the Living Word, even your Son our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen
I was just twenty-six years old when I graduated from seminary and became the pastor of the Congregational Churches of West Newfield and Limerick, Maine. If you’ve never heard of them, it is because they are really small towns. West Newfield had about 400 residents and Limerick, the big town, had about twice that. The two congregations shared nothing but me. I had two boards of deacons, two trustees, two women’s groups and two youth groups. The two nearest hospitals were 20 and 45 miles away. I put a lot of miles on my car, and I learned a lot about ministry that I hadn’t learned in seminary.
I grew a beard to look older and wiser than my years, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t fool anyone. I’ve learned a thing or two about the ways of the world and the church and myself, but when it comes to the ways of God I still stand in awe before the mystery of it all as much as I did back then.
But I will tell you one thing I have learned. You have to be open to hearing the voice of God from unlikely people and in unexpected situations. This is a humbling truth, and there is a kind of Socratic inversion about it. Remember how Socrates said of himself: “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”?
Likewise, the people who think they always know what God is saying tend to be the ones least open to hearing from God, and are therefore the least knowledgeable.
Because if we decide in advance where and when and through whom God will speak, we severely limit our capacity to hear from God.
There are many reasons we close our minds and hearts to those through whom God speaks.
Perhaps we think someone is too young to speak for God. Recall that the prophet Jeremiah tells God just that, that he is too young to be a prophet. God rebukes him, saying: “Do not say ‘I am only a boy; for you shall go to all whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.’” (Jeremiah I. 7)
I remember when I was young being frustrated that older people often found it hard to see me as someone with something to say because of my age. Now that I am not so young, I have to resist the impulse to dismiss the insights and wisdom of the young, and to tell the truth, I find myself more and more learning from those who are younger, which is an ever-expanding group.
For example, I’m less hopeful that our generation will solve our national affliction of gun violence, but I am very hopeful that the younger generations will in the fullness of time..
My daughter, Rebecca, is a pastor, and a good one. But sometimes when I am listening to her preach, my mind is saying, “How can this be? Is this my daughter? I remember the day she was born as if it were yesterday.”
Recall when Jesus went to his home synagogue to preach his hearers said, “Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.” (Mark 6:3) The takeaway from that text is “never preach in your home church.”
It was Jesus’s youth and their familiarity with him that kept them from hearing him.
What else keeps us from hearing God speak to us? It wasn’t so very long ago that the conventional wisdom in the church was that preaching the Word of God was a man’s vocation. There are still many Christians that believe that.
When I was growing up there were no women ministers in my church, or in my experience. When I was at Andover Newton Theological School, one of my teachers, Emily Hewitt, was one of the first 11 women (“irregularly”) ordained in the Episcopal Church. It caused quite a stir at the time.
I wondered what she was doing. So, I Googled her, and I discovered that she later went to Harvard Law School, became a lawyer, and then Chief Judge of the United States Court of Federal Claims. Why would the church want to deprive itself of the talent of someone like her?
But for a long time, we did keep women from using their gifts and talents. It was a widely accepted convention. My pastor daughter has clergy colleagues that barely speak to her and consider her ordination illegitimate.
I am really dating myself now, but when I started my ministry in Maine, there were only male deacons, who served communion. The women, called deaconesses, set up the communion and cleaned up after. That was the way it had always been and it was accepted. But we went through a change. We saw the basic unjustness of this arrangement, and we changed it.
And so, we changed our ideas about who could preach the Word of God, and now women ministers, and very talented ones like Rebecca, are a commonplace in our churches.
When John Robinson, the pastor of the Pilgrims in Leyden, addressed them before they shipped off to the New World, he preached a sermon to them. And in that sermon, he said, “God hath yet more light and truth to break forth from his Holy Word.”
This openness to new light and truth is very biblical. Our God was always doing the unexpected. Even the people God chose to speak on his behalf or to carry out his plans were seldom what one would expect.
Think about some of them with me: Jacob was a liar, a cheat, and general scoundrel. He tricked his father, stole his brother’s birthright, and had to leave town in the dark of night. Yet he became the Father of a Nation and was given the name Israel.
Moses, God’s spokesman, said, “Not me, Lord, I’m not a good speaker. God said, “I’ll send your brother Aaron with you. He can do the talking.”
The prophet Jeremiah, said, “I’m just a boy.”
And Mary, the mother of our savior, was a humble unmarried teenage mom.
These instruments of God go against our human expectations, but God uses all sorts and conditions of men and women to speak and act on his behalf.
And so, we have had to expand the circle of those who preach, bringing in women within the lifetimes of many of us in this room.
And we are continuing to expand the circle. For example, even twenty years ago Brent (our pastor) was unable to follow his call to ministry because he was gay, and his denomination, the ELCA was not ordaining gay people. And they do now, so good for them.
But not very long ago, a gay, married pastor with a child was not an experience that many of us had had.
Before Brent came to us ten years ago, I was praying for God to send us a faithful pastor and preacher. And God did, because Brent is a rock-solid Christian, born and raised in the church, and I never hear a sermon of his without hearing something of the voice of God in it. And he was installed here ten years ago today!
The world around us changes. The contexts in which we preach and hear changes. I am reminded of the story about Will Campbell, the white civil rights leader who marched with Martin Luther King. He was a Southern Baptist, and he was asked if he believed in infant baptism. “Believe in it? I’ve even seen one!”
So, once again we have had to expand our thinking about who we think we might hear God’s Word from. We have had to expand the circle.
Because God calls a variety of men and women to speak on his behalf, and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes, races, tongues, sexual orientations and gender identifications. And the truth is we need to hear from them all. Without their voices the story is not complete.
Because the Word of God doesn’t just drop from the sky. The Christian faith is a mediated faith, coming to us through the words of others. We have the words of the Bible, and the Word of God can be discerned in them, but they themselves are not the Word of God. No, to hear the Word of God we need human interpreters, which is one of the tasks of the church.
One way of thinking about this that has helped me was put forth by the great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth. He wrote about the threefold understanding of the Word of God. First, there are the written words of the Bible, then there are the spoken words of the preacher, and finally, and most importantly, there is the living Word, Jesus Christ.
This living Word is mediated through both the written words and the spoken words. The prayer I began my sermon with is based on this idea: “Through the written word, and the spoken word, may we behold the living Word, even Jesus Christ our Lord.”
So, we need people in the church to mediate the Word of God to us, to make it real for us. And this happens in community and in relationships with real people living real lives, with real talents and struggles. We need all kinds of people, so that you can even hear a sermon from someone like me with a severe traumatic brain injury.
The great preacher Gardner Taylor advised preachers “to look beyond the peripheral signs of preaching greatness to the real source of pastoral insight–the common bond with one’s hearers provided by suffering.” And I would expand Taylor’s words to include not only suffering, but all manner of shared life-experience, the kind that happens in community, the kind that happens day to day in the church. We weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. (Romans 12:15)
But the very best preacher in the world does not make the Word of God alive by himself or herself. For that you also need good hearers, ones open to hearing things that they may not have heard before, that may challenge them, prod them, even make them unhappy or angry. Spur them to act for love and justice.
But by being open to the unexpected, hearers may well hear things that please and delight them, things that make them wiser and stronger and more faithful. And hearing from unexpected voices may open them to larger truths, to new wonders, and, above all, to the amazing grace and the vast love of God for us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(I preached this sermon on May 7, 2023 at the First Congregational Church of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. For aYouTube video of the service go here,)
Photo: R.L. Floyd, 2009)