Another Good Sermon
Another Good Sermon
Friends in the business (not monkey, ecclesiastical... though sometimes it's hard to tell the difference) lately ask the same question upon seeing me after a lapse of a week or two: "Heard any good sermons lately?" I usually shrug "No" and move on to other more interesting topics.
With that caveat, I can report I am awaiting the next nudge from a friend about a good sermon, because I have heard one lately.
Sunday morning we drove to the Connecticut panhandle for a visit with my uncle, my father's sole surviving sibling, Tommy, one of the "greatest generation," a wounded veteran with Merrill's Marauders in Burma during World War II. I heard for the first time how he came by the shrapnel still in his arm and chest, from a mortar shell that killed the soldier next to him.
That was how we spent the afternoon, with Tommy and Anne in their living room in Stamford, reminiscing and catching up on family.
The morning was spent, a hour of it, that is, in the New Canaan United Methodist Church. We had worshipped there once previously, but I did not post a review of our visit. An acquaintance of fifty years, a Methodist clergy retiree now living in Central Connecticut, was filling in for a few months for the appointed pastor currently on rest leave. Ralph Roy, said interim, is celebrated in another essay on this website (see Methodist Connections: A Few of My Favorite Parsons).
The Sabbath morning experience reinforced the premise of my book, also to be found on this website, that the future of the church hinges on the hands of those who lead it. Sure, the same can be said for General Motors or the local pizzeria. But in recent years many clergy have denigrated the importance of the pulpit, perhaps from an aggravated sense of humility or, more likely, the general disregard abroad in our culture for authority figures.
How good and sweet it was, therefore, to hear a sermon preached with a certain elan, an occasional hint of self-mockery, plenty of down-to-earth illustrations, easy-to-follow outline, and clear logic. One might expect as much from a graduate of Swarthmore College, the author of three books, and numerous columns in newspapers. Literary people in the pulpit tend, in my experience, to be... well... wordy. Not so, Ralph. Fact is, the sermon, maybe twenty minutes in length, was over too soon, so filled was it with engaging content.
Long ago in another century while watching a Playhouse 90 show about a Hollywood movie producer, he set down his rule for a good movie, that it had to pass the "rump test." If the backside began to get numb half way through the film, it failed the test. If, on the other hand, the film was over before the viewer shifted in his seat, the movie was a winner. The sermon this past Sunday passed the "rump test." When a church member, alerted to the presence of Critical Christian, asked what I thought of the sermon, I shot back, loud enough for Ralph to hear, "I'd give him an A."
The theme was healing, faith healing. The text was John's narrative of the healing of the paralytic at the pool at Beth-zatha. I found intriguing the preacher's suggestion that, maybe, the poor soul who never could make it to the pool when the angel wings stirred its surface, because others beat him to it, might just be looking for an excuse; maybe, like many of us afflicted, he had grown used to dependency. "I never thought of that," I mused in my mind, with a little envy.
There was, as you might guess, a reference, not entirely negative, to Oral Roberts. The stress, however, was on the practical, how to play the bad hand dealt us, how to get through the tough times of mental and physical stress. Faith heals, by way of remembered verses of the Bible. Ralph confessed to lapsing into hymns when in his car along the highway and time is running out for the duties that must be performed, and anxiety wells up. He named several tunes, including one I memorized once for a dinner honoring a fellow Kiwanian, "Life Is Like a Mountain Railroad."
Patience and persistence also help when dealing with seemingly impossible circumstances. Pastor Roy offered a delightful illustration I'd never heard before, about three frogs, Phil, Bill, and Jill, who find themselves trapped in three different milk containers, the large multi-gallon, galvanized kind once common to the Vermont farms of the preacher's childhood. Phil panicked immediately, sank, and died of lungs filled with lactic fluid. Bill survived longer, but he swam too frantically, became exhausted, sank, and went to his own milky end. Jill, on the other hand, (and it was not lost on me that the truly resourceful frog was feminine!) paddled patiently, never lost her head, and by morning's light emerged from the milk can atop a huge pad of butter. Loved it! A better illustration of patience and persistence than making lemonade when life gives you lemons.
Faith is handmaiden (!) to the resources of spirit that enable us to be triumphant over anything circumstance throws our way.
I took no notes. What I report here is what I remembered, and it is considerable. There was much more. Maybe I'll ask Ralph to provide this essay with an addendum rebuttal, filling in important points I have missed. A good sermon, a very good one, and it made our day, maybe provided us with a new understanding of my Uncle Tom and how he made it through 88 years (patience and persistence, plus a loving wife) even though his journey here was punctuated with a painful, nearly fatal explosion.
The members of the church with whom we spoke after the service are as enamored of Ralph Roy's leadership as I am. One couple shook their heads in wonderment that the children were attentive. In the sermon for young Christians, the pastor, with faithful stuffed dog Hermosa at his side, used a felt board to tell the story of the healing of the paralytic. The prayers were direct and short, the way Jesus said they should be.
It was a five halo experience, made possible, I would shout in the shadow of The Discipline, by a United Methodist minister eight years beyond the age of mandatory retirement.