I heard a good sermon Sunday
A Very Good Sermon
I heard a good sermon Sunday. No, I heard a very good sermon Sunday.
It began on an Adirondack mountain, descended to a Mississippi back road, tarried in Jerusalem, stopped at a synagogue to listen to an itinerant preacher recruiting followers, and wended its way again to the mountain top with a clearer view of God's purpose for us in a turbulent world. The Adirondack mountain is named Goodman. The Mississippi back road is the one stained with the blood of three young men. Jerusalem is the eighth century version of that Palestinian citadel. The itinerant preacher looking for a few good men is, of course, Jesus.
As a listener and as a preacher myself, I appreciated the sermon's symmetry. We went from mountain top to mountain top with a long sojourn in the lonesome, if teeming, valleys below.
As a listener and as a preacher myself, I applauded (quietly) the timeliness of the sermon. Karl Barth, the 20th Century's theologian of grace, said that the preacher should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. We were, accordingly, treated to Isaiah and Jesus' reading on the trial of an 80 year old Baptist preacher and KKK leader for the murder of three young civil rights activists in Mississippi forty years ago.
As a listener and as a preacher myself, I admired the moral imperative of the sermon. With Isaiah's warnings in mind, about those who speak peace when there is no peace; with Jesus' admonitions to his disciples in mind, about being sent out like sheep in the midst of wolves; the sermon urged us never to accept a counterfeit peace while others suffer injustice; always to be aware of the personal dangers of doing what is good and right; but never forgetting the blessedness of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness' sake.
As a listener and as a preacher myself, I found especially appealing the gentleness and humility with which the sermon unfolded. "I wish I could do that," I said to myself: tell the hard truth with love.
It wasn't a sermon I ever preached. I preferred the scattershot method of addressing contemporary and divisive issues. Nor did I ever, to the best of my recollection, develop one story line throughout a sermon. Many preachers do it, but very few as effectively as Sunday's person in the pulpit. I told him a few weeks ago, when we found him at lunch eating a salad and reading a book at a local diner, that he is the most literate (that is, the most widely-read and thoughtfully-worded) preacher in these parts. That's a reputation to which I would aspire, even if his subject matter doesn't grab me the way it does him.
It occurred to me Sunday afternoon ruminating about the morning's message that if the megachurch contemporary worship service pattern prevails in Christendom such good sermons will become as rare as classic hymns. Twice recently I have listened to those who have bumped up against proponents of the new wave in American churches. One reports from an interview with a parson intent on bringing the full Gospel to the godless Northeast that said parson, willing to offend any Jew within hearing distance with a quote from John 8, was unwilling to offend any potential recruit to his church with talk about feeding the hungry and seeking peace among the nations. The other tattletale on megachurch strategy reports that the Sunday morning service deliberately avoids controversial subjects, even hardline fundamentalist doctrine about salvation. Wait until the prospect is hooked, goes the strategy; then draw him into the inner circle of faith where the harder and harsher lessons can be taught.
Another time I'll address and explore a basic assumption of the mega-church movement - that success is to be measured numerically, in terms of people and money - which has been left, for the most part, uncriticized. Suffice it to quote here a comment by a Catholic priest years ago, that Jesus calls us to be faithful, not successful. More on that score later, dear friends.
Some of you who are frequent readers of these postings will be aware of the paucity of new Reviews. You correctly read my silence as disappointment. I continue to search for the pearl of great price. I would, frankly, be willing to settle for silver instead of gold, garnets if not diamonds. But this past Sunday, when lethargy kept me from going to the church I had chosen in advance, and we went to a small cathedral we have frequented several times earlier, I was rescued from my usual Sabbath mumblings and restlessness. Thank God for preachers who say something and who say it with a little (but not a lot) of style calculated to stir the mind as well as the soul.
A good sermon, a very good sermon, is, indeed, a rare pearl to be prized.