The Sermon as Gift

Easter pulpitWriting a sermon has its own birth pangs

Bible text: Mark 13:10-11

And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. And when they bring you to trial and deliver you up, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say; but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.

Next Sunday, I will be preaching my last sermon at Scottsville Presbyterian Church. I will be retiring as its pastor.

As I review my seven and a half years of service, I count preaching as one of my top joys. I have loved mounting the pulpit each week to deliver what I hoped was a meaningful word from God for my congregation. Yet if I were asked to name the most anxiety-producing aspect of my job, I would also have to name preaching, specifically sermon preparation.

As a solo pastor, I felt my congregation deserved a fresh sermon each week, no repeats. And so every Monday morning I began afresh the task of trying to discern a word for my congregation for the following Sunday and to express it in words that were easy to understand yet touched both mind and heart.

As a Presbyterian, I believe the sermon is no ordinary lecture. It grows out of the Scripture texts read in the Sunday service. I follow the ecumenical revised lectionary in choosing my texts for a good reason. It keeps me from harking on the same familiar texts and themes that represent my own personal canon in the canon. Instead I am challenged to tackle the more complex message of the whole Bible.

The Trials of Sermon Writing

That is precisely the source of the agony of sermon preparation. On many a Monday morning, I have sat staring at the texts the lectionary assigns and scratching my head. What kind of relevant message can I pull out of these texts?

Sometimes the message comes quickly and easily. But often not. Instead I must wrestle with the text, sometimes as intensely as Jacob wrestled with the strange figure who blocked his crossing of the Jabbok river (Genesis 32:22-32). The texts just seemed too strange or too complicated or too foreign to modern American life.

That triggers great anxiety within me. I am constantly afraid that I will come up on Saturday night with no message to deliver the next morning. I will be shown to my congregation to be an inadequate pastor, nothing more that a simple peddler claiming to be the wizard of Oz.

Sometimes this anxiety will stretch into Tuesday and Wednesday. It will disturb my sleep and my moods.

Coming to Birth in Its Own Time

But then I discover something amazing. Something always comes. It might be as late as Thursday morning or even Friday afternoon, but a message always comes.

Sometimes the sermon comes while I was driving my car to the office. Sometimes it comes after my weekly breakfast with fellow clergy also preaching the lectionary. Sometimes it comes after I have written one whole sermon and then realize that that draft just does not work. Sometimes it comes during a session of meditation or after an afternoon nap.

I never know how it will come, but it does come, week after week. Over time I’ve learned to deal with the anxiety by talking to myself. “Gordon, you’ve never been let down before. Relax. The sermon will come in its own time.” And it does.

When I look at the finished sermon, I often find myself wondering where all the ideas it expresses have come from. I didn’t know that I had them within me.

That’s why I’ve come to regard my sermons as a gift. Yes, I do the research that lies behind them. Yes, I do the hard work of constructing the sermon and searching for the right way to express my thoughts. Yet the finished sermon doesn’t feel like it’s my sole creation. Somehow it was given to me, given in terms of its timing and in terms of its content.

In a strange sort of way, sermon preparation has given me a more vivid sense of how the Holy Spirit works in the hidden recesses of our consciousness. I do my part, but in an important way, the Holy Spirit does his as well. If the sermon speaks to my congregation, it’s because the Holy Spirit has somehow had a hidden hand in crafting what I say. If the sermon falls flat, then the Spirit and I were out of sync with each other.

In his eschatological discourse recorded in Mark 13, Jesus urges his disciples not to be anxious when they must witness to their faith before a law court and other persecutors. The Spirit will give them what they need to say. And so it has also been in my experience as a pastor. Thanks be to God.

Note: The photo shows the pulpit of Scottsville Presbyterian Church, where I have delivered my Easter sermon for seven consecutive years.


A Patrimony for the Outsider

A prophetic vision expands citizenship within God’s people

Bible text: Ezekiel 47:21-23

Sometimes reading a Biblical passage is like listening to Joseph Haydn’s Surprise Symphony (Symphony 94). In the second movement of that composition, Haydn plays repeated variations on a soft melodic theme. With each repetition, one relaxes more and more, almost to the point of becoming drowsy.

Then after the fourth repetition, a harsh chord, played by horn and drums, crashes into the score. This is the surprise of the symphony’s title. It jolts the listener awake. We ask: What just happened?

I had an experience like that recently when I was reading the book of Ezekiel. My focus was chapters 40-48. I couldn’t remember when I had last read this part of the book, if ever. So I chose to plow through it.

In these chapters the prophet gives a vision of the restored temple, the restored city of Jerusalem, and the restored land of Israel after Israel’s long exile has ended. One can read it as a utopian vision. It stirs our imagination, but we tell ourselves it could never be realized.

That, however, is not the attitude of the text. It may be unrealistic under current conditions. Yet the vision offers an alternative to the present. It could become real if the right spiritual forces were to converge together to make it real.

An Engineer’s Description of Jerusalem and Its Temple

The description of the temple is very detailed. The description actually reads much like an engineer’s report. It gives exact measurements for every architectural detail of the holy structure: the doors, the gateways, the walls, the courtyards as well as the inner sanctuary itself.

A description of the restored city, again with some precise measurements, follows. Everything is ordered and symmetrical. Towards the end comes a description of the renewed land of Israel. The vision sees the land divided equally among the twelve tribes of Israel. Each tribe gets an allotment of land running from east to west across the land of Canaan. Topography is ignored.

As one reads through these chapters, the engineering-like descriptions start to feel tedious. One measurement fades into another. Our minds begin to drift off. Mine certainly did.

A Jolt to Our Expectations

And then at the end of chapter 47 I read something that acted just like the surprise chord in Haydn’s symphony. I was reading through the instructions for how the renewed land is to be allocated among the 12 tribes of Israel. I thought I was reading a highly egalitarian, yet nationalistic vision, for it seemed that the land would be reserved solely for Israelites.

Then in verses 21-23 we encounter injunctions that foreigners living among the Israelites (some translations call them resident aliens) are also to be allotted patrimonies in this distribution of the land. “They shall be to you as citizens of Israel; with you they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe aliens reside, there you shall assign them their inheritance, says the Lord God” (47:22b-23 NRSV).

My drifting mind sat bolt upright. Had I read the text correctly? This was not what I expected to find in an extended passage that seemed so nationalistic in spirit.

Outsiders to the religious-ethnic people of Israel are being given patrimonies in the land of promise. Maybe we should think of these resident aliens as proselytes to Judaism. But the text does not say so explicitly. And certainly the dominant population in this vision is the ethnic Israelites. The land of Canaan is after all the land that God promised to them.

And yet…and yet…here is God instructing the Israelites to give foreigners a patrimony within their own patrimonies. The vision is breath-taking and so unexpected…and a tad jarring.

How a Buried Passage Speaks to Today

As I read this passage, I was taken back in consciousness to other passages in the Old Testament that hint that in the future foreigners (Gentiles) will be given some kind of membership within the people of God. I cite Psalm 87, Isaiah 19:24-25, and Isaiah 56:6-7. Those passages too jar us if we read the prophetic visions of the restored Israel to come as being strictly nationalistic visions.*

There seems to be a momentum in the Hebrew Scriptures pointing to a future when the people of God will embrace more than Israelites born to that status. When the Christian Church opened its doors to Gentiles as equal members with Jews, it seems to have been activating this future vision into its own present time.

I said earlier that this future vision comes across as totally unrealistic, and yet it stands as a challenge to think of an alternative to the present. I think it can still perform that function for both Jews and Christians today.

For Christians I would turn the challenge in a 180-degree reorientation. Christians have long come to think of the people of God as consisting only of Christian believers. They are now the true Israel, the argument goes. (Theologians call this the doctrine of supersessionism.)

But maybe we need to think more humbly of ourselves, realizing that we are, as the apostle Paul argues in Romans 11:17-24, the wild olive shoots that have been grafted onto the native tree. We ourselves are not the tree. Israel is. And the grace of God active in Christ is to open grafting into this tree to all of humanity.

I wonder if this passage does not also offer a challenge to present Israelis in their conflict with the Palestinians. If Ezekiel’s vision grants a patrimony to foreigners in the land of promise, cannot Palestinians also be granted a patrimony in the land of Israel/Palestine? Ezekiel’s vision seems to point to the ideal of one land shared by both.

Now I recognize that such an alternative requires a change of attitude on the part of both Israelis and Palestinians. Palestinians must change their attitudes just as much as Israelis. Such a transformation seems unrealistic at the present moment. Yet Ezekiel’s visions does not let me be comfortable with present realities.

Says Joseph Blenkinsopp, one commentator on Ezekiel, “It is of the essence of Judaism and, following it, Christianity, to aspire toward and strive for the perfect commonwealth, God’s kingdom of love and justice, and therefore to reject the kind of realism that simply accepts the status quo as given.”**

That’s how a buried passage in a little read part of the Bible can speak volumes to us today.


* I have discussed Isaiah 19 in my previous posting, “A Breath-taking Hint of Universalism in Isaiah.”

** Joseph Blenkinsopp, Interpretation: Ezekiel, Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990. Page 237.