The sermon this morning is in two parts which I’ve called homilies.
My second homily is an Easter parable. And my first homily is an answer to the question: ‘What is a sermon?’
Is a sermon an exposition of the Holy Scriptures, and their ongoing relevance or irrelevance? Or for that matter, is it an exposition of the “Holy Scripts” of our lives, and how God might be known in them?
The former is what our learned forebears called ‘preaching the Word’. The ‘Word’ being the revelation of God in Jesus – though some erroneously understood the Word as the words in the Bible. The latter, the holy scripts of our lives, has been the substance of many a sermon…
However, these days you don’t have to come to church to listen to such expositions. You can get them on your computer, or on your phone. And, for the discerning customer, you can find much better than what I offer.
And I suppose that is the nub of the matter: Are you a customer? And am I peddler of the product called ‘God’? Are you a consumer or are you a participant in an enormous life-changing enterprise?
The best experience of church I could imagine is one where on the one hand each of you knows yourself to be deeply loved and accepted, and on the other hand knows your purpose in life is to work with others to make Jesus’ vision a reality.
I say ‘the best experience of church’ rather than ‘sermon’ because the sermon – despite what our Reformed antecedents might say – is only one part of the whole. Indeed the important and attractive things about church often happen apart from the sermon - such things including the collegiality and support of a community, sharing food, making music, and providing for children. These are what, so the church growth experts tell us, attract people to church. Oh yes, and one other thing, leadership.
And maybe that’s the point of a sermon – to offer leadership in a particular mode.
The theories and practice of leadership has changed dramatically in my lifetime. When I was growing up the minister was metaphorically seen as the shepherd and parishioners the sheep. The minister was judged on his commitment to the wellbeing of the sheep [often to the detriment of his/her own health or family, and certainly his/her leisure], and the sheep were judged on their allegiance to the minister [and if you disagreed with the shepherd you left]. Some places still operate like that.
The form of leadership that I’ve been shaped by, and tried to model, is that of collaborative leadership, where the sheep metaphor is consigned to the bin of history and metaphors like team are to the fore. This way of leadership values the leadership gifts of many in a parish, values transparency and reason in decision-making, and tries to make room for difference. Difference is a gift, not a threat.
Recently, I’ve been reading about Barnabas, who along with Paul undertook mission journeys around the first century Mediterranean world. I like Barnabas a lot, and will preach a sermon about him sometime. In Acts 11:22 Barnabas was sent to Antioch as its new leader. This was the first church established outside Palestine. It would in time become one of the five great centres of Christianity – the others being Alexandria, Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Rome.
Barnabas invited Paul to come and join him as an assistant. Even with the apprehension of a new appointment Barnabas’ ego could seemingly cope with Paul, the rising ecclesiastical comet! Barnabas wasn’t threatened by talent. Indeed a year or so later Barnabas and Paul [13:1ff.] undertook a missionary journey during which Paul proceeds more and more into the foreground and Barnabas recedes more and more into the background.
It is interesting to note how the Church in those days asked its ministers to leave them and go off for six months or more to converse with those outside the bounds of the Church. No ‘parishioners’ so to speak were asking “Who’ll take care of us?” or “Who’ll take our services for us?” The ‘parishioners’ just got on with being the Church. The ‘clergy’ were not indispensable. I think our elders at St Luke’s must have been reading about Barnabas and Paul when they decided that during my study leave to ‘just get on with being the Church’.
So, let’s return to the subject of sermons. You’ve been around, like I’ve been around, and heard the good, the bad, and the ugly of sermons. I’ve heard sermons that are a story [like the one I’m going to tell shortly]. I’ve heard/seen ones that are PowerPoint shows, or YouTube clips. I’ve heard ones that are the reading out of a commentary. And ones where the preacher just wants to say ‘sorry’. The point is that each of these, in context, has a place, and has an audience who appreciates them. It’s a question of fit - what fits best in the context? [Though note one type of sermon rarely fits the needs of all].
And a lively church will hopefully, while appreciating the usual, want to experience from time to time something unusual. Or put another way, if a sermon always confirms you in the comfort of your ideas it fails. For a sermon needs to also tickle, nudge, and even trick you into thinking in to the new and different and, yes, uncomfortable.
So, while I’m away, enjoy the difference that will be offered here at St Luke’s. Be kind to those who offer it. Engage with it. Open your ears and hearts to what the Spirit might be saying through that offering. And relax… I’ll be back before you know it.