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.