“Looking for Light in the Shadow of Death” A Sermon on Matthew 4:12-23

shadow

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, and those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

The “Shadow of Death.” That doesn’t sound very good, does it?

I asked Rabbi Josh Breindel of Temple Anshe Amunim in Pittsfield about the phrase and he said it is quite literally “shadow of death” in Hebrew. He said it is a colloquial saying and means something like “mortal peril.” We are all acquainted with that image from the 23rd Psalm: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me.”

Two of the traditional themes for the Epiphany season are “light shining in the darkness” and the “calling to Christian discipleship,” and I hope to combine them today. Continue reading

“Known knowns, known unknowns,” and the New Testament

scholar-696x371

The good folks over at the Babylon Bee, a Christian satirical site, posted a gem of a fake article today called “Historical-Critical Scholar Doubts Authorship Of Paper He Wrote,” which comically captures some of the dubious certainties that sometimes come out of the New Testament studies combine.

The article quotes the fictitious Dr. Gunther Burg of Yale questioning the authenticity of an article he himself had written. Continue reading

“And in a supporting role . . .” Hulda the Prophet

Hulda 2“Hilkiah (the high priest) and those the king had sent with him went to speak to the prophet Huldah, who was the wife of Shallum son of Tokhath, the son of Hasrah, keeper of the wardrobe.” —2 Chronicles 34:22

The prophet Hulda gets a scant 9 lines in the Bible, and in them we learn more about her husband than we do about her.

Nonetheless, she must have been impressive, for when King Josiah needed a prophet to authenticate the Word of God, it was to Hulda that he turned. Continue reading

Coming Soon: A New Bible Study on Romans

RomansP1I am pleased to announce that the Bible study on Romans that Mike Bennett and I have been working on for so long can now be ordered through UCC Resources and will ship on March 1.

Romans, Part 1, Romans 1-8 and Romans, Part 2, Romans 9-16 are titles in the United Church of Christ’s LISTEN UP! Bible Study series.

Romans, Parts 1 and 2 are not ground-breaking new works of original Biblical scholarship, but rather teaching tools to be used by small groups in Bible studies. A leader’s guide is included in every workbook.

Mike and I together bring over a half-century of experience as pastors leading Bible studies in local congregations. Romans Part 1 and 2 brings our knowledge of how to make Bible study come alive.

Behind these studies we bring our own understanding of Romans from a lifetime of engagement with this important book. Mike has been influenced by two important commentaries on Romans by Professors at his alma mater Yale Divinity School, Leander Keck and David Bartlett. Mike is also a contributor to the Feasting on the Word series. Continue reading

“Are you choking?” A reflection on worry.

Thorns“As for the seed that was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.” – Matthew 13:22

“I’ve never been particularly susceptible to the lure of wealth, but I am an expert on “the cares of the world.” It may be in my genes. My grandmother, Irma Grace, was what the family called a “worrywart,” a word you don’t hear much anymore, but one that means “a person who worries too much or who worries about things that are not important.”

My grandmother was the Babe Ruth of worrying. She had long lists of things to worry about, and if one worry got resolved the next one would quickly move to the top of the list. (From my Daily Devotional for today. See more here)

 

“Words to Live By” The King James Bible and its Legacy to the English Language

JamesThe story I want to tell is the story of the creation of the King James Bible, and its enormous influence on the English language. For over 400 years this was the Bible for the English-speaking world, the best selling book of all time, and still the most frequently purchased translation.

It lasting legacy to English is incalculable. It is the Bible that Abraham Lincoln learned to read with, and its sounds and rhythms can be heard in his Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address, as it can in Melville’s Moby Dick, the poetry of Walt Whitman, and the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.

How did we get this extraordinary work of literary art that has made such a place in the story of English? It was published in 1611, but there is considerable backstory that needs to be shared before we get there, and so we need to go way back. The English still refer to it as the Authorised Version (AV), but I will use the more popular American title, the King James Version and its abbreviation (KJV.)  Continue reading

The Calling of Disciples: A Sermon on Vocation

Ghirlandaio

John 1:29-42

 What is vocation? We typically think of vocation as our job or profession, but the idea is much larger and richer than that, so let’s take a look at it, starting with a little word study.

Vox is the Latin word for “voice,” as in Vox Populi, the “voice of people.” The Latin verb “to call” is vocare, as it still is in Italian. The noun form is vocatio.

There is a whole cluster of English words that have these Latin words as their root, words that refer to voice, to speaking and calling. For example, when we “speak out” we are being “vocal.” The whole collection of words we use to speak is our “vocabulary.” And, of course, a person’s calling is his or her “vocation.”

In Christianity (and its mother Judaism) our God is a God who has a voice, a God who speaks and calls.

But God’s speaking is different than our human speaking in an important way. We make a distinction between human speech and action.

But for God there is no such distinction: the Word of God doesn’t just say something, it does something. So, for example, in Genesis 1, God creates the worlds with a word. Recall how God said, “Let, there be light! And there was light.”

And recall also how God says in Isaiah 55, “My word will not return to me empty, but will accomplish that which I purpose.” Isaiah himself is an example of a prophet, a person called by God to speak for Him, so that when the prophet speaks, his words are heard by the people as the Word of God.

Likewise in John’s Gospel, we see that Jesus is called “the Word of God.”  John 1: “In the beginning was the Word” intentionally mirrors Genesis 1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

But to say that Jesus is “the Word of God” is to say more than that he speaks the Word of God, as Isaiah did or the other prophets did.

No, in Jesus, we see this intimate connection between speech and act, between word and deed. Because Jesus is both the one who speaks the Word of God, and he is also the one who accomplishes it, by his life death, and resurrection.

And so we see in today’s Gospel from John, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the calling of the first disciples, which sets in motion the drama of the rest of the Gospel.

Why does Jesus call disciples? To answer that we need some background on what Jesus’ ministry was all about. First of all, Jesus comes into a time and place where God was expected. The people had been waiting, longing, hoping for the coming of God’s reign in the form of his anointed one, which is the word “messiah” in Hebrew, and “Christ” in Greek.

The role of John the Baptist in the story is important because many at the time thought that John the Baptist was a figure like Elijah. Elijah was often thought to be the one who would come before the messiah, a forerunner figure.

Many people saw John the Baptist in this same light, and his appearance in the wilderness raised expectations for the coming of the Messiah. When Jesus shows up preaching and teaching many thought he was the expected One.

In our reading today the evangelist describes Andrew and Peter as disciples of John the Baptist, who leave him to follow Jesus.

So Jesus calls disciples for a very particular reason, which is hinted at by his calling twelve of them. This mirrors the twelve tribes of Israel. This is just one of many indications that Jesus understood himself to be the carrier of God’s special calling of Israel.

And what was Israel’s special calling? We get an inkling of it in our Old Testament reading today, where God says to Israel, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:1-7)

In theological terms we refer to this special calling as “election.” In the Bible election is never for itself. No, election is always to accomplish the purposes of God.

The “chosen people,” whether we are referring to Israel or the church or both, are not called because they are better than others, but because God has use for them. And if we pay careful attention to the stories of the people God calls in scripture, it becomes quite clear that God doesn’t call the qualified, but rather qualifies the called. Think of Abraham and Sarah, well past their prime, Jacob, the liar and thief, Moses, the murderer, and Mary the poor teenage unwed mother. These are people like us and people we know.

So once again, you may be thinking, “Well, that’s really interesting Rick, and we’re glad you got to use your high school Latin, but what’s all this got to do with us?”

And the answer to that is that it has everything to do with our identity as a congregation and our understanding of our mission. In other words, our vocation informs both “who we are” and “what we do.”

I am talking about our vocation as church. We don’t just come to church, we are called to be the church. There’s a difference.

Here’s a hint about our calling. In the Call to Worship for this morning I referenced the UCC Statement of Faith several times. Twice it refers to God’s call. The first call is in the beginning: “God calls the worlds into being.” There’s Genesis 1 again.

The second call from God is through Jesus, “He calls us into his church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship.”

So the church is called as an instrument of God’s purposes, and those purposes are the same as in the original creation.

To begin to think about ourselves that way, as being called for God’s purposes, will change both our identity and mission. We are not merely a voluntary association of individuals with a benevolent and spiritual focus, although we are that.

But we are more than that, we are called, we have a vocation.

This concept of vocation was very important to our Puritan forbearers here in New England. We talked about this in our Men’s Book Group on Wednesday. Before the Reformation vocation was understood to be only for the religious life, for the monk, nun, or priest.

The Reformers changed that. Luther and Calvin believed that there was a general calling to repentance and a godly life for all Christians, and there were particular callings to life’s several vocations, as we understand them today.

So calling was no longer just for the clergy, and it still isn’t. Calling is for us all, and what are we called to be? Disciples of Jesus. And what is a disciple? A disciple is quite simply a follower or a student. One who hears the call of Jesus.

Jesus called those first disciples by asking them, “What are you looking for?” And later he invites them to “Come and see!”

And they might not have known what they were looking for, as many of us do not, but they knew it when they saw it. And they said, “We have seen the Messiah.”

They heard the call and answered it.

I want to talk now about the power of words as it relates to our callings, and I can think of no better example than Martin Luther King, who was a very important influence on me, and on my own call to ministry.

I was fourteen when Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream Speech” in Washington, D.C. at the Lincoln Memorial. I was there last month and felt as if I was standing on holy ground.

I had grown up in the church, but in Dr. King’s speech I heard a new power in some familiar words. Dr. King’s father was a minister, and Martin grew up in the thought-world and language-world of the church.

The African-American church had retained the moral grammar of the faith that had been largely lost in the mainline church, the language of justice and righteousness, and in the civil rights movement Dr. King and others gave it back to the whole country as a gift in their words.

When I first heard Dr. King’s words they rang true. They had behind them such moral force. His use of familiar scripture, such a Isaiah 40, “Every valley shall be exalted,” and of shared national language such as the words of “My Country ‘tis of Thee” re-awakened the moral imagination of much of the country.

In Dr. King’s speech fifty years ago I became awakened to the power of words to shape the life of individuals and societies, and years later I discerned a call, there’s that word again, a call to the ordained ministry.

And throughout my long ministry I have often pondered the power of words, to heal or hurt, to inspire or dampen the spirit, to free or repress. And I believe that a society that de-values words is at risk, because it ceases to know when it is lying to itself, and can’t recognize truth when it hears it.

But the right word at the right time can change a life or change a society.

I invite you to recall such moments in your own life. Perhaps you were listening to a sermon, or the words to a hymn, or a scripture reading, and suddenly those words were not something you were just overhearing, but words that were addressed to you.

And it is in such moments that “vocation” takes place; when you hear the voice of God calling. And when that happens there is no turning back, because the Word of God has a life of its own in your life.

You know how Brent (our pastor) often begins worship with the words “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.” This language is part of what we in the United Church of Christ call “the extravagant welcome of our God.”

These are good words. The purpose of this welcoming language is to create no barriers that will keep people away from our life together here, and several people have told me how reassuring it is to them.

But, in the interest of full disclosure, I need to tell you there is danger in all this extravagant welcome, and it should come with a warning label.

Because once you say to yourself, “I feel welcome here. This could be my church,” a new thing may happen. You are very likely to have one of those moments I just described, when the words you hear become the Word of God that feel as if they were directly addressed to you. Then you hear the call of God and recognize your vocation. Then you move from attendance to discipleship, from observing Jesus to following him. Then you accept “the cost and joy of discipleship.”

Those moments will change your life.

So what is God calling you to do? Who is God calling you to be?

What is God calling us to do? Who is God calling us to be?

And let the people say: Amen.

I preached this sermon at my home congregation, the First Congregational Church (UCC) in Stockbridge, Massachusetts on January 19, 2014.

(Picture: The Calling of the Apostles by Ghirlandaio)

“From Here to There and Back Again” The Journey from Text to Sermon

On the other hand

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,

   and do not return there until they have watered the earth,

making it bring forth and sprout,

   giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;

   it shall not return to me empty,

but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,

   and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”  (Isaiah 55:10-11)

The title for today’s gathering was announced as “Getting from There to Here.” As I reflected on it I wondered if perhaps “getting from here to there” might be more apt. “Here” being the text in front of you, to “there, ” the sermon. That works.

But as I thought more about it I saw the wisdom of  “from there to here.” From “there,” “the strange new world of the Bible,” to “here,” the world we live in. And I thought of some of the various locutions we have used over the years to capture this movement from text to sermon, such as “from text to context” or “from Word to world.”

Then I considered the many ways I have approached the writing and preaching of sermons, and I realized this movement from text to sermon was more dialectical and less linear than any of these ways of speaking about it.

As I thought about it, the more I liked the sub-title of The Hobbit, which as you may know is “There and back again.” So perhaps “here to there and back again” is more like it.

From here to there and back again describes a journey that is not just a straight line, but rather more like a journey without a  map or even a predetermined end. And I like this way of thinking, because it captures how I have experienced sermon preparation in my four decades as a preacher.

I start with a Biblical text, and then I live with that text throughout the week on my journey, revisiting it and wrestling with it and worrying it until I begin to hear something of the voice of God in it, and by then the contours of the journey begin to show themselves, as do even the purpose of the journey and it’s destination.

The process seems to take on a life of its own, which is another way of saying that the Word of God is alive. I like today’s Isaiah text where God uses the agricultural metaphor of rain and snow watering the earth and making it produce to describe the way his Word works, “It shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

And I want to say a bit about what I mean when I say “the Word of God,” which can mean one thing or another, even sometimes one thing and another, or even three things depending on the context.

One way of thinking about this that has helped me comes from 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 today is based on this idea: “Through the written word, and the spoken word, may we behold the living Word, even Jesus Christ our Lord.”

And that is not to say every text needs to be understood Christologically (although it can be), as in the text we have from Isaiah today. But to say there is a living Word is to say that whenever we hear the Word of God as direct address to us, it is the same Word of the same God, who came to us and for us and became the Word made flesh.

So when I talk about the Word of God in sermon preparation, it may be a reference to the text itself, the words, or to the proclamation in the form of a sermon, the Word preached, or to both, but the goal of the journey is, through the finite human words of the text, and the finite human words of the preacher, to transcend this finitude to hear the living Word of God. And I believe this is the primary task and challenge of preachers, and of the church, for that matter.

Let me say a little bit more about the words of the text and the words of the preacher as the Word of God. I think of them by analogy to the doctrine of the two natures of Christ. Jesus is truly human and truly divine, not half and half or some other percentage.

And in much the same way (although not identically) the words of our Scriptures, the Old Testament and the New Testament, are truly human and truly divine. Human in every way, written (and edited) by human beings, and truly divine through the agency of the Holy Spirit of God who inspired the writers to write them, the same Holy Spirit the church invokes when we read them.

And the same thing can be said about the words of the preacher. A sermon is not written in some special spiritual words, but in the same human words that we use in everyday speech. Since everyone in this room is a preacher I don’t have to belabor the point that we are all human, even all-too human. Yet the Holy Spirit that inspired the writers of Scripture is the same Holy Spirit that inspires the preacher, and the same Holy Spirit that the church invokes and invites as it prepares to hear the Living Word of God from the frail words of scripture and the frail words of the preacher.

This is admittedly a high view of preaching, and some might say it claims too much for the preacher. I would say quite the opposite. It is the views of preaching that put emphasis on the personality and performance of the preacher that claim too much for the preacher.

The claim that the preacher is to be a minister of the Word of God is much like the church’s understanding of the celebrant at the eucharist. The principal was established early in the church during the Donatist controversy. The Donatists were heretics, so the question arose whether the baptisms they performed were valid. And the church agreed that “the efficacy of the sacrament does not depend on the sanctity of the celebrant.” So the preacher may be more or less gifted with the homiletical arts, but it is not those gifts that are decisive. What is decisive for the preacher is that he or she has been set apart to deliver the church’s proclamation, so that the church may hear in it the living Word of God. It is not about the preacher. It is about the church hearing the Word of God.

This is a (nearly) sacramental view of preaching, that the preacher should say what the sacrament shows. And in both cases neither the preacher nor the celebrant has control over the Holy Spirit of God, as if we somehow could control God. No, Christ is not truly present in the sacrament nor truly alive in the preached Word because we invoke his name, but rather because he himself commanded us to do these things and promised to be present with us when we did.

So with this high view before us, and a text in front of us, how do we get from there to here or from here to there and back again?

The first thing I want to say about approaching a text is the expectation that God will speak through it. Which is to say that the high view I propose operates out of trust. I think it was Richard Hayes who wrote about a “hermeneutic of trust.” For decades we have been talking and hearing about “a hermeneutic of suspicion,” and that has had its place as an corrective to the Scriptures being misused as instruments of oppression and injustice, “texts of terror,” as my teacher Phyllis Trible so eloquently called them. But there has been a heavy price to pay for the widespread “hermeneutic of suspicion” that has so pervaded the academy for decades, in that many preachers now reflexively distrust the texts.

And I think it is sometimes necessary and appropriate to distrust a text, but it shouldn’t be where we start. Sometimes distrusting a text along the way will lead you to the Word of God.

So the text is in front of us. Perhaps it is an assigned text from the lectionary. I like that, because I can be a lazy sinner who is inclined to make my favorite texts do tricks for me, but that is just me.

Perhaps the Bible is open on our desk, perhaps it is on our computer screen or smartphone, but there it is. First things first: read the text.

Read it in expectation that God’s Word can be heard in it, but don’t rush to decide what it means or even what it has to say. Texts need time. They need to be listened to. I have always described my sermon preparation as inhabiting a text. Living in it.

Another good way to think about it is to “stand under” the text so as to understand it. And the preacher stands under the text along with the rest of the church.

I am really talking about hermeneutics now more than the homiletical side of things. So you all know the various ways to worry a text into view. Read it in the original languages if you have them. Read it in several translations. Look up any key words or phrases in a Bible Dictionary. Take a stroll through some commentaries. Find out its genre and its original context. In other words do your homework. I once preached a sermon that involved Herod, and added “you remember him from the Christmas story.” My dear friend Luther Pierce, a retired UCC minister, shook my hand at the door and said, “Good sermon, Rick, but you conflated Herod the Great with Herod Antipas. Different Herod.” Oops!

So once you’ve done your due diligence and you have the text in your grasp, reflect on the context. Those of you who were preaching in the weeks after 9/11 may recall that the Common Lectionary texts were from Jeremiah and Lamentations, texts we had all avoided in the past because they are horrible cries of despair for the destruction of Jerusalem. All of a sudden after 9/11 texts about the city of devastation and the burning tower became eerily contemporary.

Which is to say contexts change. The immediate context of any preacher is the life of the congregation, and when I talk of inhabiting a text, I am referring to going about one’s pastoral duties with the text in mind. From here to there and back again.

Then there are the larger contexts of the communities in which we live and the country and world we are a part of. Sometimes contexts demand our attention.

We rarely get the kind of compelling clarity about the relationship between text and context that we got after 9/11, but keeping the text in mind as we think about the multiple contexts will often show us the way to go, the particular context that needs to be addressed by the Word of God.

The dialectic of the journey of text to context and context to text means straddling two worlds with the hope we can find in them the same story.

I had the privilege of preaching my daughter’s ordination sermon back in June, and afterwards Mary Luti said, “I like the way you went back and forth from the story in the scriptures to your story now.” And her comment made me realize that I preach that way because to me it is the same story.

I immediately thought of Hans Frei’s The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, a wonderful and important book. Frei’s thesis is that prior to the Enlightenment Christians inhabited the Biblical Story. They understood it as their story. They were part of it. The Enlightenment changed that as we held the story at arm’s length like any other observable phenomenon.

The task of the preacher is to repair the breach; to make the Christian Story our story again. I am reminded of Bruno Bettelheim’s book, The Uses of Enchantment, where he argues for the re-enchantment of the world for children through fairy tales.

Letting the words of scripture and the words of the preacher be the Word of God for God’s people requires a similar kind of re-enchantment. It means the church realizing that the Story isn’t just back there, but is still going on and we are characters in it.

Let’s look quickly at our Isaiah text for today to see how this might be done. The text is from Isaiah of the Exile and the context is a people who have no reason to be hopeful, since they have lost the three pillars of their identity, their temple, their land and their nation.

The promises made to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob seem null and void. Their prospects seem dim, their possibilities few.

Into this context God speaks through the prophet. “My ways are not your ways, my thoughts are not your thoughts.” “You know that rain and snow we sometimes get in the desert? That is what my word is like. It will not come up empty. It will make happen that which I promised.”

And that is what the Word of God sounds like.

And when we hear this story, can it speak to us, where our prospects seem dim and our possibilities few? Can it speak to a declining church too often eager to call it a day? Can it speak to a nation full of grave injustices and inequalities? Can it speak to a world of death and terror?

When Isaiah speaks the Word of God to the exiles he lets them see what can’t be seen, and makes them believe what they can only know by trust in the one who speaks to them. The Word makes them part of the story again, the story that began at the beginning when God said “light” and there was light, the story that saw their ancestors freed from bondage, the story that seemed to come to an end, but now God says to them, “No, it’s not ending. Not at all. I will lead you through the desert of your journey into my own future.” And what will it be like? It will be like this:

“You shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”

And let the people say: Amen.

I preached this sermon at the New England Pastor’s Meeting of Confessing Christ, West Boylston, Massachusetts, on September 26, 2013.

“Hearing God’s Word from Unexpected Places”

Celtic cross

 But the Lord said to me: 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

It is good to be back with you. I so enjoyed being here on Epiphany Sunday for Pastor Mike’s installation. It was cold then. It is not cold today. I have a small confession to make. Mike e-mailed me “We don’t wear robes in the summer.” And I e-mailed him back, “Can I wear one. I’m kind of a robe guy.” So I brought a robe and a stole up here to Dover, but then I realized I was preaching about opening oneself to new experiences and insights, so I’ve decided not to wear one. You know, to walk the walk as well as to talk the talk. I am also wearing a blue shirt for the first time in forty years, because I’m kind of a white shirt guy, too. So I’m really being daring today.

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, just over the border and up the road about an hour from here. That was nearly forty years ago.

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. In our Old Testament reading today, 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.

My twenty-nine year old daughter, Rebecca, was just ordained to the ministry in June. I have heard her preach several times now, and, if I do say so myself, she is pretty good. But sometimes when I am listening to her, my mind is saying, “How can this be? Is this my daughter? I remember the day she was born as if it were yesterday.”

And you have a daughter of this church being ordained soon, Emily Goodnow, a schoolmate of my daughter’s from Yale Divinity School. And perhaps some of you who watched her grow up in this congregation wonder, “How can this be? I remember when she was just a girl in Sunday school.”

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)

His youth and their familiarity with him 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 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 one of my teachers, Emily Hewitt, was one of the first 11 women ordained in the Episcopal Church. It caused quite a stir at the time.

As I was preparing this sermon 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 is now the 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.

For example, and 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 and Emily, 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, who we heard about today, 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, in the church where I worship our pastor is gay. And he is married. And he and his husband just last week adopted a baby boy.

And that is new to me. And because of that it have been a bit of a challenge for me to get my mind around, because even a decade ago a gay, married pastor with a child was not part of my experience, or the experience of many for that matter.

Last year, during our interim period, I was praying for God to send us a faithful pastor and preacher. And God did, because this pastor 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.

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, and sexual orientations. And the truth is we need to hear from them all.

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 brain injury.

Those of you who were here for Mike Bennett’s installation in January will remember that I preached a sermon called “Ministry is not a Commodity and Ministers are not Appliances.” And in that sermon I said this: “Mike embodies what the great preacher Gardner Taylor was after when he 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.

And I said this to you: “If you let him, Mike will share your lives, will rejoice when you rejoice and weep when you weep, and will become your pastor.”

And by all indications it seems that, nearly a year into your relationship together, you are finding that to be true.

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.

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 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 August 25, 2013 at the First Parish Church, Congregational (UCC) in Dover, New Hampshire.