“O Captain! My Captain!” Walt Whitman and Robin Williams

LincolnThe Internet is full of kudos for the late great Robin Williams, many of them referencing the Walt Whitman poem “O Captain! My Captain!” (which is a line from William’s movie “The Dead Poets’ Society.”)

It would be sad if the original context was lost. The poem is an expression of Whitman’s grief at the death of Abraham Lincoln. It is one of my favorite poems, and as much as I loved Robin Williams, and appreciate his cometic gifts and obvious humanity, I  want us to hold on to the power of this poem about the man that emancipated slavery, saved the union, and changed our nation forever. And I imagine that Robin Williams would be first in line to agree with me.

“O Captain! My Captain!”

BY WALT WHITMAN

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

Some Lenten Reflections on Forgiveness

Prodigal son by RembrandtThe idea of forgiveness is so ingrained in our cultural and religious traditions that it is easy for us to overlook what an extraordinary idea it is. Although we tend to separate out “forgiving” and “forgetting” the biblical notion of forgiveness is literally “a forgetting,” in that after the act of forgiveness “it is as if ” the grievance never happened.

It is only the aggrieved party who can do the forgiving, and the act of forgiveness “wipes away” the memory of the grievance so that it no longer has any influence on the relationship. So it is that the phrase “I will remember their sins no more” appears again and again in the Bible, for example, in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Hebrews.

Before this idea of forgiveness took hold there was simply “revenge,” in which affronts were met with retribution, often disproportionate to the original wrong. These “family feuds,” if we want to call them that, could go on for generations, and still do, as we see sometimes, for example, in the Middle East, where memories of affronts are long.

A moral advance on such indiscriminate retribution was the lex talionis, the “law of retaliation,” which prescribed that the response had to be equal to the offense, as, for example, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

But the idea of forgiveness moves social relationships into a whole new key, and goes beyond mere justice. Indeed, forgiveness is an affront to justice, which is one of the perpetual accusations made against the Gospel by its critics.

Israel’s God is a god who forgives, but we may recall that the first covenant in the Bible is the covenant with Noah, and in that story God’s forgiveness has limits. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5)

So God does not forgive the people and punishes them with a flood. God shows some mercy, enough to save a remnant in the ark, the blameless Noah and his family, and the several species of animals. But God repents of his action, viewing it as a dry run (if you’ll excuse the pun), and promises never to do it again, laying down his arms (so to speak,) and leaving his bow in the sky to remind him.

In Exodus there’s a seeming change in the character and identity of God, in which mercy becomes a key quality. In preparing for today I took two volumes of the Anchor Bible Dictionary, the M volume for “mercy,” and the F volume for “forgiveness.” When I found the entry for “mercy” it said, “see LOVE.”

In Exodus we have a particularly important passage for subsequent Jewish and Christian understandings of God’s identity and character. It is Exodus 34:6-7, when God tells Moses to go up Mt. Sinai with two stone tablets. As you recall, God descended in the cloud, revealed the divine name to Moses, and then proclaimed to him:

“The Lord, the LORD,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
and the children’s children,
to the third and fourth generation.”

Now this passage is really packed with things to ponder, but I want to highlight three for you.

1. First, this is a big moment in the history of God and his people. The revealing of the divine name tips us off to it, and right after this is the giving of the law and the Sinai covenant. To reveal one’s name is to be in relationship. God chooses to be in relationship with Israel, and renews the previous covenants.

2. Second, while we in our day tend to focus on the individual, and on individual sins, notice that here the emphasis is collective to the people as a people.

3. Third, the relationship is not only collective it is trans-generational, the promise applying across multiple generations.

I would guess that most of what we talk about in this Lenten study over the next few weeks will be about individual acts of forgiveness applied to willful, intentional sins. But the early understandings of forgiveness in the Bible were almost always collective, and almost always for inadvertent sinning.

So I need to say a word about why divine forgiveness was a necessary condition for God and Israel to be in relationship. This is a little hard for us to get our minds around because we tend to think of sin as a moral category, and it was also for Israel. But sin was frequently, perhaps even more frequently, thought about not as morality, but as purity.

God was understood to be holy and humans were not, the creator and the creatures were in different categories. And so we see the development of the elaborate holiness codes in Leviticus, which were designed to produce ritual purity in people so as not to offend God. Even so, it was impossible to keep all the myriad laws required.

Remember I said most sins that needed to be forgiven were inadvertent. So it wasn’t flagrant sinning like robbery, murder, or adultery, the ones we think of in moral categories, which needed to be forgiven so much as the infractions against ritual purity.

This is part of the backstory behind some of Jesus’ conflict with the scribes and the Pharisees who were zealous for the law, the maintaining of ritual purity.

I don’t think I am stating it too strongly to say that our very humanity makes us in need of forgiveness from the God who is holy. And that is why when God chooses to be a forgiving God it is a precondition for us to be in relationship with God at all.

And again, I think if we look at the grand arc of the whole Christian Story in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments we see how the very identity of God can be understood in terms of forgiveness, the fruits of mercy and love.  So much so that, after Good Friday and Easter, the early disciples of Jesus, all of them Jewish, as he was Jewish, came to call him “Lord,” the name previously reserved for God alone. It is quite remarkable. They saw in his love, mercy, and forgiveness congruence with the character and indenty of their God.

Before I move on to focus on the New Testament I need to mention something else relevant to the idea of forgiveness that will come into play later: that is that the priestly cult in Israel saw one way to blot out the memory of sins was through a blood sacrifice of an animal as an atonement or expiation. The people around Jesus’ had either participated, witnessed, or at least knew about such ritual blood sacrifices from the daily operations of the Jerusalem temple. So when we talk about Jesus’ death as atonement for sin, we are missing the original referent of the metaphor, which is partly why the idea is so hard for us. It’s a dead metaphor. I’ve written a book about all this if you want to know more (see When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement, Wipf and Stock, 2010)

All these understandings about God’s holiness get carried into the Christian era, so the New Testament also understands sin as an offense against God’s holy law or against another human being. As in the Old Testament forgiveness involves the wiping from memory of the offense by the one affronted so as restore harmony in the relationship.

The seriousness of sin is one of the chief preoccupations of the New Testament. Humans cannot by themselves avoid God’s condemnation. So Jesus says, in the Sermon on the Mount, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees you can not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) And St. Paul flatly declares in his letter to the Romans: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

This is the predicament of the human condition, and the context of Jesus’ ministry. In the retrospective look of the apostolic age it was understood that, as it says in 1Timothy 15, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

Our best example of forgiveness at work is in “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” (Luke 15:11-32) which I know some of you have been studying. One of the key features of that story is the father’s eagerness to restore his relationship with his lost son. Notice the father forgives the prodigal before the son even has time to deliver his little repentance speech. We should recall that the whole purpose of forgiveness is the restoration of the broken relationship. And in this parable the older brother, who didn’t leave, didn’t sin, and kept all the rules, thinks it is unfair that his deadbeat brother is restored. And it is unfair, because forgiveness is driven not by justice but by love. The older brother thinks he has earned his father’s love by his own achievements. But you don’t earn love. The father loves the prodigal not because he is good, but because he is his.

I’d like to quickly point to two more features of the New Testament idea of forgiveness. The first I have mentioned already: the death of Jesus, which in miniature focuses the whole gospel story. Here the sinless faithful Messiah, betrayed, denied, and abandoned by sinful humanity, obediently goes to his death with forgiveness on his lips, praying to his Father for forgiveness for those who killed him. It is a loving act of atonement.

The second feature, which will come up in our questions, is the way Jesus taught his disciples to pray about forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our trespasses (debts, sins), as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Here, and elsewhere, Jesus is saying that the capacity to receive forgiveness is somehow intimately connected to our capacity to forgive. In Matthew 5:23-24, for example, Jesus says, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” It is as if only those who can forgive can understand it enough to receive it.

( I gave this Lenten Study presentation on March 9, 2014, at the First Congregational Church (UCC), Stockbridge, Massachusetts.)

Picture: The Prodigal Son by Rembrandt

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)

My Top Ten Posts from 2013

cropped-winter-11 As the old year passes and the new year beckons, it is my custom to look back at the popular posts of the year. Here are the most visited posts from 2013: Saving Thanksgiving from the Retailers An Ordination Sermon: The Secret Sauce of Ministry. A Recipe in Two Parts Unity in The United Church of Christ: A Theological Reflection Clergy Evaluations and Why They are a Bad Idea Ministry is not a Commodity and Ministers are not Appliances: An Installation Sermon Hearing God’s Word From Unexpected Places “What’s the Point?” Reflections on Christian Eschatology “From Here to There and Back Again” The Journey from Text to Sermon “The Towers we Build? or God our Strong Tower? A Sermon on Psalm 46 “We Give Thee but Thine Own” A Stewardship Sermon And these were the top ten posts of all time: Confused? Interpreting Your Congregation’s Numbers Why did Jesus refer to Herod as “That fox” in Luke 13:13-32 Prayer for a Retired Pastor “Rejoice! Rejoice!” A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent “God Gives the Growth.” A Retirement Sermon There is Nothing to be Afraid of!” A sermon on Psalm 27:1-2 “Behind Locked Doors” A Sermon on John 20:24-29 A book review of Elizabeth Strout’s “Abide with Me” The Lord Will Provide.” A Sermon on Genesis 22 The Ministry and its Discontents: Pastors in Peril Thanks for dropping by, and keep visiting in 2014.

Saving Thanksgiving from the Retailers

TurkeyThanksgiving is the only holiday that Americans of all religions can share, because it isn’t a religious holiday, although one can celebrate it as such if you choose. It is also the one holiday that many Americans gather as extended families. It is the only holiday on which I see my brother and sister and their families, along with my own children and their significant others.

But what if you have to work on Thanksgiving? More and more retailers, not content with the immense profits they make on so-called “Black Friday,” are opening on Thanksgiving. You and I can choose not to shop on Thanksgiving, but the workers in these stores won’t have that choice. Yesterday I received a letter from a UCC colleague in which she addressed this issue. I have asked her if I can share it on this blog, and she has given me permission:

Dear Group:

While driving down the road and listening to WBZ the other day, I heard a story from the consumer reporter. The reporter said that this year we will have a record number of retailers open on Thanksgiving…”no longer do we have Black Friday but now we will have Black Thursday.” This has just irritated me to no end. Yesterday, I asked the members of my congregation to send letters to our local retailers letting them know that Thanksgiving is a day to give thanks, spend time with our families and reflect upon the goodness of life and the bounty of our earth. Thanksgiving is not a time to shop. I asked my congregation to consider all of the people who will not be able to spend time with their children and families because Macy’s, Walmart, J.C.Penney’s, Target ( just to name a few) will be requiring their workers to be on the job. Jesus calls us to be disciples and to speak up and be people of faith. Therefore, I am asking all of you to consider joining me and my congregation in writing letters to retailers to politely let them know that you will not be shopping on Thanksgiving, instead you will be giving thanks with your family and friends. Please invite them to honor this holiday by doing the same. We have lost Sundays to soccer, football, basketball  etc……let’s not simply stand by and  let Thanksgiving become another casualty.

Peace: Victoria

Rev.Victoria Snow
First Congregational Church
Sutton, Massachusetts

Victoria’s got it just right, that it will take pressure from consumers to keep us from losing this holiday to the idol of consumerism. Let’s push back.

(Photo: R.L. Floyd, who also cooked the turkey)

“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.