Pentecost – Proper 21
Numbers 11: 4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Psalm 19: 7-14; James 5: 13 - 20; Mark 9: 38 - 50
THE REV. JAMES M.L. GRACE
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
Psalm 19 is a bold, thoughtful and provocative psalm, that meets us with these words today: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, my rock and my redeemer.” If you have been going to church for a long time, you may have heard a clergy person say those words before preaching a sermon.
They are a way of the preacher saying, with great hope, that the words they are about to say are not their own, but somehow mysteriously become the words God intends for the congregation to hear that day. What is interesting to me is that the most clergy use this verse of the psalm to introduce and begin their sermon, whereas in Psalm 19, as you can see, the verse comes at the very end of the psalm. Why? The author of the psalm petitions God, prays to God with her or his deepest thoughts and prayers, concluding with that verse, the effect of which is to say: “I have just said a lot of things, but I don’t know if they were the right things, and I pray to you God that whatever it was that I just said in this psalm be acceptable to you.”
Clergy, on the other hand, often use the psalm in reverse, by including it at the beginning, rather than the end of their sermon, in effect saying “God I already know what I am going to say, because I have either memorized it or have printed it out on paper and I sure hope what I want to say is what I think you think the congregation should hear.” And this is a big problem with sermons in the traditional sense.
You all need someone in a white polyester robe telling you about God like you need a hole in your head. And that’s often what preaching is in many churches, although the color of the robe might be different. The priest goes into the pulpit, and stands, looking down at the congregation, almost creating an image of false authority, and the priest pontificates on things that most of the congregation either will not remember in fifteen minutes. And this happens in churches week after week after week – the same thing, the same message, dressed up a little differently – fitting hook line and sinker with Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity as “doing the same thing again and again expecting different results.”
By the way, I will admit to you this morning that I am really bad at listening to most sermons. I’ll be honest with you – most of the time if I go to a service, and I am sitting in the pew, and the sermon begins, I can usually listen for about two minutes, and then I am gone, and my face starts to look like this (point to parishioner). I freely admit to having minimal attention span which over the years proportionately has become smaller and smaller, at the same rate as the screens on our smart phones have become larger and larger.
The reason I feel this happens to me, and to many people sitting in church pews on Sunday mornings is because too often sermons lack heart, they lack honesty, they lack truth-telling, and they lack vulnerability. I didn’t go to church often as a child, and so Sunday mornings were often spent flipping through television channels to see what cartoons were on. Sometimes, when no cartoon was on, I ended up watching the televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, no joke. I didn’t pay much attention, and honestly I don’t remember a word he said – except when he admitted to having an affair. The tears running down his face, as he said on national television “I have sinned.” I remember it clear as day – why? Because it was honest.
If I have learned anything about preaching since seminary, it is this. It is not the priest who preaches. It is the congregation – it is all of us. We are writing a living sermon with every breath we take. We are writing a living sermon in how we choose to live our lives, how we spend our money, how we treat those less fortunate than ourselves.
You might not do this, but whether or not you know it, your life is a sermon you preach every day. And the more honest you are, the more authentic you are, the more the words you preach through your actions, the more the meditations of your heart are acceptable to God.
This – being up here – saying these words – it’s easy, because it’s not the true sermon. The true sermon is not one that sounds great coming off paper, the true sermon is what you do when the public eyes aren’t watching. When the doors are closed. That’s when the sermon becomes real, because then there is no posturing, there is only you and God, and the meditation of your heart.
The sermon you preach in your home, in your place of work, in your prayers, in your exercise, and in your leisure – are those words just something you want to say and you hope God blesses them beforehand? Or has God already blessed your sermon, your life as a preacher, with words that are blessed and ordained by your Redeemer?
Comedian George Burns once said a good sermon should have a good beginning and a good ending, and as little as possible in between. I disagree. Your sermon, which is your life, had a wonderful beginning in your birth, and will come to a holy end at your death. What is in the middle is up to you – what you preach, using words only if necessary, is the gift of your life, your sermon. And the sermon of your life, if it is real and woven into the heart of God, will never put anyone in a pew to sleep. AMEN.