Several times Susan has suggested that I return to parish ministry just so that she can hear meaningful, stimulating sermons again. I am flattered, but having the privilege of preaching to my spouse strikes me as insufficient cause to reverse my entire life direction. But she also has a compelling secondary argument: she misses the theological conversations that inevitably sprang from my sermon preparations. I do miss the weekly discipline that was so much a part of regular preaching: the reading, the pondering; the new ideas that grew from reading and pondering and moved the sermon in unexpected directions. Regular preaching was a lens through which I experienced and appropriated all the events of my week.
Sadly, there is less quality preaching out there than there should be, and I have been shaped by the Reformed tradition to hunger for sermons that are articulate, focused, thoughtful and faithful. I heard two sermons in the last week, and there was a remarkable contrast between them.
The first was delivered on Christmas Eve at St. Paul’s UCC in St. Paul (that sounds redundant, but is not). St. Paul’s was once a “cathedral church” first for the German Reformed Church and later for the United Church of Christ in St. Paul. It is located on Summit Avenue in the midst of other cathedrals and stately homes. The congregation has declined radically in numbers, but we found the members absolutely delightful: warm, welcoming and hospitable. We were given a mini-tour by a fascinating and very sweet man about our age who sported dramatic facial tattoos and the most impressive earlobe ornamentation I have ever seen (maintaining eye contact was a bit of a challenge).
The sermon was delivered by their interim pastor, a very nice woman whose heart is clearly in the right place. There was nothing in her sermon I disagreed with, but perhaps that is because I never came close to sorting out what it was she was attempting to say. She used the word “home” a great deal, perhaps in the hope that if she said the word over and over it would somehow connect all the unrelated anecdotes she rambled through. If I were to attempt summarizing her overall message it would be “Baby Jesus was born so that justice-minded bankers would write ethical mortgages that connect people to one another; home, home, home.” We heard a few lessons and carols (four lessons: the condensed version) and at the conclusion of the service we got to light little candles and sing “silent night” in German and English, which was all very nice, but it would have been nice to have a sermon to chew on after we left.
This past Sunday we attended a small, conservative church where our friend Jonathan Menn was preaching. Jonathan is a fascinating guy. His parents were members of First Congregational, and shortly after I began my ministry there he stopped by to ask me (we both love to tell this story) whether his parents were going to hell because of me or in spite of me. We were adversaries in the dramatic “abortion wars” that got so ugly locally in the 1980’s. A few years ago, Jonathan gave up his law practice to attend seminary, and now trains African pastors through EPI (Equipping Pastors International); we have become dear friends, testifying to God’s peculiar sense of humor.
It was the kind of morning I always dreaded as a pastor: freezing rain had given way to snow in the night and it was the Sunday after Christmas – perfect excuses to stay home on Sunday morning. Only about 25 hearty, faithful souls made it to the church. Again folks were welcoming, although their ears all appeared to be normal. The service was a bit on the loose side, even by the usual standards of a small Evangelical church: moderately praisy praise music, and bizarre power-point slides that had no relationship to anything else going on (while Jonathan preached, various tropical beaches appeared behind him). But Jonathan preached for a good 40 minutes on the Second Coming, a wonderful topic for the Sunday after Christmas, and it was easily the best sermon I have heard since, well, since I last preached: Biblically anchored, theologically articulate, and profoundly thoughtful. I disagreed with at least 70% of what he said, of course, but how wonderful to hear a sermon worth disagreeing with! I found myself giving the sermon my full attention while also mentally writing several sermons of my own that wanted to spring from ideas in his, particularly on the theme of “final judgment.” Jonathan believes that at the end of being (our own or the world’s, whichever comes first) we will be judged by Jesus (which he rightly argued is a much better deal than being judged by Peter). But Jesus himself said that by his incarnate presence he has already brought judgment into the world, which I have always taken to mean that we bring judgment on ourselves by the manner in which we do or do not receive and follow him. So does the risen, enthroned Christ even need to “judge” us on the final day? That was one of about seven themes (beginning with the place of Revelation in the Christian canon) I found myself wanting to debate passionately.
One of the most disappointing responses people would give to my sermons on the way out the door was “Great sermon! I agreed with every word you said!” That meant I had failed: failed to challenge, failed to stimulate new ways of thinking about what it means to live faithfully. How wonderful to still be thinking about a sermon on Monday, at least in part because I did not agree with every word the preacher said.
After we got home from our Christmas visit, I briefly fantasized about applying for the permanent position at St. Paul’s in St. Paul. Could a once-great urban church that is still doing many things well experience renewal and revitalization if preaching were restored to its central role in worship? Could these good-hearted, progressive folks open themselves to something as truly radical as the Gospel of Jesus presented fully, faithfully and well? I wrote to our son Colin about my little fantasy. He told me to go for it: I would look good with gigantic earlobes.
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