Welcome to the website of a retired United Methodist pastor! This corner of the Internet continues nearly fifty years of a weekly column in a church newsletter, on topics ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. The opinions expressed are the author's and represent no institution, although it is hoped that within these pages you will find a reflection of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who, in his own borrowed words, insists that we love God with, along with all the rest of what we are, our minds. "Critical" as used in the title does not mean being nasty or grumpy; it means using intellectual faculties in the service of God. Your reactions, rebuttals, comments, and questions can be addressed to: BobHow9846@comcast.net.
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April 25, 2015 - Essays: The Concentrated Mind
May 9, 2015 - Essays: Growing Old and Over the Years
May 17, 2015 - Memorial and Celebrations: George Simmons Retirement
On the way down the steps of the church in Vermont after the benediction
a summer years ago I overheard the evaluation of the
Grand Themes Not Petty Irritations
A summer years ago on the way down the steps of a church in Vermont after the
benediction I overheard the evaluation of the morning's message delivered
(the critique, not the sermon) by a prominent New York City pulpiteer: "Gossip! Can you believe she made that the main emphasis?!"
From my less prominent point of view, the sermon wasn't all that bad; but then
it wasn't all that good either. The pulpiteer has a point.
And that point was fairly summed up by that observer of
the pulpit who opined that preachers have nothing to say and are saying it.
I know the temptation. It isn't easy coming up with something
important to say fifty-two times a year. The appointed lection isn't
always brimming with eternal verities. The pastor's brain is no more
fertile with ideas than a weekday soap opera. Give us a break! So we often
slide along saving the best for Christmas and Easter. Moses is our
advocate. He's the guy who witnessed the burning bush and then would have
abstained from leading the exodus because he thought no one would listen to
him... a consideration that has occurred to me when standing in the pulpit I spy
a congregant in the front row dozing. John Stewart can quip brilliantly every
night, but he has a battery of writers working for him. The preacher has only
his commentaries and his concordance, and they have to be opened and probed for
messages to be dragged out of them.
The ordinary preacher is inevitably like that miner of
gemstones whose digging produces lots of gravel and only an occasional diamond.
Still, I am arguing here, the preacher must strive every
Sunday for something both shiny and enduring.
By way of illustration, and putting myself in position for
your critiques, I turn
to the Vanderbilt Revised Common Lectionary for the assigned readings for Sunday, August 2nd,
picking the preferred Gospel selection, John 6:24-35, about the aftermath of the
feeding of the five thousand with a few fish and a couple of loaves of bread.
I've heard others expound on this "miracle" a dozen times, mostly at a church in
Hanover NH where we went every year, as if by ritual, on the first Sunday in August.
Those arranging lectionaries apparently think one or another of the pericopes
describing the feeding of the multitude a summer standard.
Usually the preacher in a mainline Protestant church feels
obliged to address the issue the passage raises (or is thought to) in the mind
of the modern enlightened intelligence, the miracle of the abundance produced
from meager provisions. From that beginning it is difficult to resist
digressions to the Virgin Birth, walking on water, the resurrection, healings,
etc., events recorded in Scripture defying scientific explanation, all of it
interesting, if finally irrelevant in the matter of living a life. So, please, pastor, save
the discussion of miracles for a Bible study, where it belongs, not the pulpit
where there is more important business in which to be engaged; namely,
broadcasting the good news about Jesus.
I truly mean that about broadcasting and Jesus. It's not
just some pious sentiment dressed up in indignation. There's a world out there
that needs to hear about that young unordained Jewish rabbi and what exactly he
has to say about this mortal life and the living of it.
To that end my mind was immediately drawn in the lection from
John to verses 27 and 33, Jesus speaking:
27 - Do not work for the food that
perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.
33 - For the bread of God is that which
comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.
In other words, my words summing up the red ones, nourish your mind and heart on Jesus
if you want (and, by God, should want!) a life full and rich with satisfaction.
Illustrations abound. I offer a recent one. Recently I
attended a memorial mass for a college classmate, an orthopedist for forty
years. l could have wished the presiding priest (who did link in his
sermon the good doctor to the Great Physician) had celebrated the 6,000 surgeries
performed, by way of connecting him with the Galilean healer. The Vermont
sawbones lived a life of service to others, and if the praise of Jesus wasn't
always on his lips (hey, it may have been!), it was in his hands and brain every
time he entered the operating arena and gave repaired life to another.
Sure, I could go on and on. But I ask you to decide
which is the more accurate, if obviously the more edifying, theme for a sermon
on the feeding of the multitude and the red letter words explaining the event,
explaining away miracles, or celebrating the giving of life?
One does not have to be a theologian or a philosopher to hunger
for meaning on the big issues of this mortality, good and evil, life and death,
the prevalence of suffering in the world, the yearning for peace and the human
fascination with war, what has entranced and bedeviled us from the beginning of
time... and how to navigate our way through the minefield time is to arrive at
last at a place of (if not happiness) satisfaction for the whole journey.
Dear preacher, when I am sitting in front of you, spare me the
moral lessons about gossip and other petty annoyances. Give my soul
something to chew on and digest, nourishment for my journey through time.