Elements of Worship: The Sermon
(Following is a transcript of a sermon delivered on October 8, 2017. No audio is available.)
Scripture: Luke 6:17-35
In our sermon series on the elements of worship this fall, we’ve moved through the welcome, the confession and assurance, the passing of the peace, and the scripture. To day we are in the most…meta…of the series- the sermon. What is a sermon? What does it mean to preach?
Preaching ‘genius’ Fred Craddock explains that among many things, preaching could be described as “making present and appropriate to the hearer the revelation of God.” The sermon is interpretation and presentation, yes, but I think the most crucial part of Craddock’s definition is little prepositional phrase, “to the hearer.” Preaching is making present and appropriate to the hearer the revelation of God.
Sermons don’t happen in a vacuum, you see- unlike an academic paper, where theoretically any academic in the field could read it and understand it and would likely grade it similarly, the Sermon requires an audience, not just during the time of its presentation, but also for its composition. Sermons happen in a context. You have to know your hearers, in order to make the relevalation of God present and appropriate to them.
There are various types of sermons, and it is the responsibility of the preacher to determine what form might best carry the message. Today’s scripture reading comes from the sermon on the mount; and I want to dissect it a little with you this morning, to take you through the process of looking at a text, looking at a context, and discerning what needs to be heard that day. I want us to take a look at the sermon on the mount as exemplar of a preacher speaking to his listeners’ context, meeting them where they’re at, making present and appropriate to the hearer the revelation of God.
On the hillside that day, what was the audience’s context? What was drawing their emotional attention? Well for one, these were a people well-acquainted with the realities of centuries of occupation and oppression. The audience is a people heavy-laden with the burdens of poverty, sickness, persecution, fear, and anger, the Roman Empire bearing down on them in seeming invincibility.
First and foremost we hear Jesus speak to their pain. Reassuring them that “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
We hear Jesus speak to their poverty and the sense of isolation that it can create, we hear him offer the reassurance that through living in community, according to God’s call, loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, all will be provided. “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.
Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ … But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
Jesus speaks to the feelings of hopelessness that encroach on the souls of the oppressed, encouraging them not to give up in resignation “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”
Jesus, as Emmanuel, God with Us, knows intimately of their pain, and offers them relief. He speaks to their hurt and their fear and their desperation. This is a pastoral sermon. Pastoral sermons comfort the afflicted, they ground us in our faith and turn our hearts to God. Pastoral sermons can be about grief, prayer, confusion, doubt, or thankfulness, they speak to the spiritual life of the congregation.
One of the best pieces of preaching advice I’ve ever received is that if you have to say something difficult or challenging, make sure that first you let the congregation know you love them. Jesus lovingly offers his community pastoral care, binding their spiritual wounds and holding them in his embrace. And then he gets prophetic.
Prophetic sermons afflict the comfortable. They challenge us, they turn our hearts to Justice, they embolden us, they ask us to do some self-reflection, they speak to the ways in which we engage with the community. Sometimes even those in pain need to be challenged…
Jesus is aware, you see, of the ways in which pain can turn to anger and hatred, how self-righteousness can lead to complacency and feelings of blamelessness.
Jesus warns his audience about the temptations of anger. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he says, “for they will be called children of God.” He acknowledges that the scriptures allow for punishment, albeit limited to no more than an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth, and yet he challenges his followers to disavow retaliation altogether, instead instructing them to turn the second cheek in offering to the hand that struck the first.
Jesus challenges his audience not to let their pain harden their hearts, but to remain open to love, the greatest tool for building the kingdom of God. “ You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love only those who love you, what good does that do? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your friends, what more are you doing than the others?”
He cautions them against letting their poverty fuel a money-hunger, instead reminding them of what is really valuable. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Jesus knows his community’s sense of hopelessness, of resignation to what has become the new normal. He encourages them not to give up fighting for what’s right. “You are the salt of the earth,” he tells them, “but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” he reminds them that they are the “light of the world,” and explains the inescapable reach of light that is let shone. “A city built on a hill cannot be hid,” he tells them.
“No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.” “In the same way,” he emboldens them, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven.”
Those are just some of the ways that Jesus spoke to his audience’s context, both pastorally and prophetically.
Let’s fast forward to the present day- to right here, right now. How would a preacher speak to our context now? To our lives? What is our context, anyway? As I pondered that very question this week, my mind, my heart, kept pulling me back to the mass shooting in Las Vegas. The deadliest mass shooting our country has ever seen, second only to Wounded Knee.
They said, and by they I mean the voices of progressive church leaders on the internet, they said that if you didn’t tear up the sermon you had prepared and preach instead about Las Vegas, that if you didn’t tear up the sermon you had prepared and preach instead about Orlando, that if you didn’t tear up the sermon you had prepared and preach instead about Sandy Hook, that you were doing your community a disservice, that it was a dereliction of duty.
We need a conversation about gun violence, we needed a conversation about gun violence. We’ve had so many conversations about gun violence…and on Sunday, 59 people were killed by a man with a gun. We are painfully aware that conversations aren’t enough.
So how do you write a sermon about that? How do you have a holy conversation when conversation feels so futile? I sat in my office as I tried to process my own feelings about Las Vegas, and about how the neat, concise, 140-character messages of “thoughts and prayers” tweeted out by politicians who refuse to pass sensible gun restrictions feel like nothing more than words words words, when we really need action, and legislation.
Do I dare add my voice to the chorus of words that have already been said? How can more words be of any help when what I’m yearning for, at least, is action?!
So I did what preachers sometimes do, when someone else has already said all that needs to be said- I turned instead to a sermon already composed, already prepared with a context not unlike our own in mind.
Gun culture, the widespread presence of guns and gun violence is in many ways as oppressive as the Roman occupation was for the original audience of the Sermon on the Mount. Our hearts cry out in lamentation, in anger, in desperation; much like our 1st century counterparts, many of us are heavy-laden with the pain of an oppressive gun lobby that seems to convince legislators that more guns equal safer communities when in fact owning a gun drastically increases your likelihood of dying from a gunshot.
Jesus tells a people in pain and in need of comfort that our suffering is not alone, that God feels our wounds first-hand and that we will find the balm in Gilead to sooth our souls. Jesus tells a people in pain, “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” We find our comfort in community, when we come together as children of God in vigil, in protest, in fellowship.
Some of us are in pain, and some of us are angry. Some of us may have found ourselves lashing out more harshly that we usually would on those who we feel make poor ethical choices, or who we object to morally, venting our collective frustration and anger, as though they are a proxy for the rise of violent, nationalistic extremism in many of our communities. I know I have.
Jesus knows the slickness of the slope from anger to hatred and retaliation, and reminds an angry people that our calling as Christians is to be peacemakers, to build the Kingdom of God with ploughshares wrought from swords that we’ve committed to lay down.
Our call is to not escalate or prolong violent conflict, to not demand a punitive justice that furthers violence of the soul, but to turn our cheeks; to opt out of the punitive model and instead engage in a love-focused, an empathy-focused, a Kingdom-focused model of relating with our ‘adversaries’ or political opponents, or those who may have lashed out at us, venting their own frustrations and anger.
Some of us are in pain, some of us are angry, and some of us are feeling a particularly intoxicating mix of frustration and righteous indignation. That’s a very common one, I’ve found. Who are the bad guys if there aren’t any good guys to fight against? And who better to cast as the good guys than ourselves?
I find this one to be particularly apparent on social media, where we might post articles about the latest human tragedies, the latest political crises, with a certain amount of…snark? Condescension? A smugness, perhaps, or a sense of pride that the author of the article is only confirming that we’re right, and the other guys are wrong. Many of these articles, written for those who already agree with their main argument, are posted to be performative rather than informative, less about changing hearts and minds than about reinforcing publically who ‘in the right’ we are, an electronic ‘I told you so’.
And this habit of performative piety goes back at least a couple thousand years. Jesus tunes in to who effective of a coping mechanism it is, albeit only in the short term, to be so confident in your own righteousness, in the accuracy of your own moral compass that you loudly proclaim it from the electronic streetcorner.
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” Jesus warns us, “and whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others…When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.”
When we fall into the trap of performative righteousness, we are turning the focus on ourselves, and not on our neighbor. We are seeking to give ourselves the validation that we know can only come from God, from living in God’s beloved community and loosening our hold on pride.
This coping mechanism can so quickly lead us into a complacency in how it distracts us from the real, hands-on work of building the kingdom, and can make us quickly forget that none of us, no matter how aware we are of systems of oppression and how much we work to dismantle them, are a stranger to sin.
Some of us are filled with righteous indignation, and some of us feel resigned, hopeless, and numb. We may find ourselves realizing grimly that each successive tragedy has drawn fewer tears from our eyes. We may find ourselves feeling like nothing is going to change, the challenge is too great, the legislators too stubborn, for any of this to end. I’m a big advocate of taking periodic ‘news fasts’, avoiding media until I’ve had a chance to rest, or prepare my emotions for what lies within the headlines.
But it can also be tempting to extend the news fast into a complete tune-out, the kind reminiscent of ostriches and sand. It can be tempting to just go on about our lives, as if none of this has happened, because of a deep, melancholy, suspicion that there’s nothing we can do about it.
Tenderly, Jesus turns up the dial on the news channel, coaxes our heads out of the sand, and gives us a straight-up, old-fashioned, pep talk. Giving up isn’t an option. This won’t be what defeats us. We are the salt of the earth, he explains, but if the salt has lost its taste, if the real salt has leeched out into the earth, leaving empty, bland crystals, how can its saltiness hope to be restored? We cannot let tragedy leech the passion out of our souls.
We are the light of the world, Jesus reminds us, and if we let our light shine, there’s no limit to where it can reach. After all, he says, a city built on a hill cannot be hid. When we let our light shine we inspire others to do the same. Alongside the news coverage of violent acts of hatred, we also hear stories of how people have single handedly saved hundreds.
We hear of a marine veteran who saved as many as thirty people by stealing a truck to transport victims of the Las Vegas shooting to the hospital before the paramedics had arrived. We hear of hundreds upon hundreds of boat owners driving, boats in tow, for hours and hours, and across state lines into Houston, to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey survive the flooding. We hear of a husband a and wife, the owners of the Warsaw Zoo, who shepherded 300 Jewish people to safety during the German occupation of Poland- all but two of whom escaped the Holocaust and survived the war.
We hear of a woman who places her baby in a basket in the river, giving up her child in order to save his life, and we hear of a woman finding a baby in a basket in the river, raising him as her own.
Will you join me in prayer: God of eternal wisdom, As we process our pain, our anger, and our exhaustion in the wake of devastatingly frequent acts of violence, as we yearn for something to be done and become increasingly fed-up with just words, words, words, help keep our hearts open to the ways that words can guide our action in your service. Help us as a congregation, help all of us, to hear Jesus’ sermon as if it were preached for us alone. Give us the patience to let it sooth our pain, stall our retaliatory impulses, keep us humble, and invigorate our souls. God, we pray that these holy words embolden us to search ourselves for the light of Christ within us, holding on to our saltiness, and finding renewed energy for action and love. Amen.