Sunday, October 2, 2011

The "Third Sacrament"

Fifty years of experience as a preacher of the Gospel have taught me a few things, as one would hope.

When I started out, I was very diligent in study, careful in exegesis, and thorough in crafting each sermon. I was not above letting the hearers of the sermon know of the diligence, care and craft that went into the sermon’s creation.

I soon realized, however, that there was a time for Bible study and in place of the sermon at worship was not the best. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be Bible study related to the sermon. On the contrary, biblical study and education are the firm foundation under every pulpit preachment. Not only should the pastor put in effort to dig out the richness of the text, but the congregation should do their “homework”, either literally, or in regular and on-going classes.

For the pastor to deliver a Bible study in lieu of a sermon falls short of what preaching needs to be in this day and age. Such an effort externalizes theology and objectifies what Christians are called to be and do to the point of abstraction and irrelevance. Faith becomes a matter of the intellect, and the sermon an exercise in logic—which is all right as far as it goes. But it needs to go further.

Essays pretending to be sermons are not much better. Bristling with quotes and references to people and events beyond the reach of some, many, perhaps most of the people in the room, such discourses, whether interesting or boring, miss the mark. Too much is “out there”, something talked about but not necessarily experienced.

When the preacher makes it personal, it doesn’t help much. The preacher’s experience is rarely typical of the average pew-sitter. Making that connection is a shot-in-the-dark. Too many sermons I’ve heard and read indulge in individual reflections with not nearly the significance to the listeners that they have to the speaker. They also often slip off into mere sentimental sweetness.

Communication of the Gospel from person to person must be more than in the head—it must also be spoken from and to the heart. The idea of a sermon is not simply, maybe not ever, to convince someone to believe, but to lead them to faith. This happens when the sermon becomes an experience of believing.

Over the years I have come to recognize the sermon as being decidedly “sacramental”. Just as we recognize Christ in our midst when we gather at the font and at the table, so we should come face-to-face with him in the preached word. Word and Sacrament have come, in a sense, to be two different terms for the same thing—experiences of the Living Lord.

It’s one thing, however, to let the words of the liturgy guide us and open our eyes to see Christ here and now, but it’s quite another to say that my words as preacher will do the guiding and eye-opening. That puts a considerable burden on the mere mortals who climb the steps to the pulpit and look out to the hopeful faces awaiting an introduction to the risen Christ.

I’ve come to believe that if I rise up so brazenly to preach without a knot in my stomach and knocking of my knees, then I do not appreciate the utter awe of the responsibility. But the knot and the knocking seem to persist, so I keep working past it.

Here’s where my experience of preaching leads me to call it “sacramental”. The Spirit is there in the act of preaching, just as the Spirit is in the baptizing, and again in the breaking, pouring and sharing. The end result is the same--the Spirit introduces us to Christ.

So I get up to speak, all nervous and jittery, and a calmness comes as the Spirit joins in. In my own weakness somehow I nevertheless am strong. In my jumble of words somehow the Word comes through—and I know full well, it isn’t me, but beyond me.

I’m full aware that this is a dangerous affirmation to make, because it can skid right into arrogance. Yet it is most humbling to be aware that one is the instrument of grace, the broken vessel by which God conveys Good News, the stammering voice chosen to tell God’s Story again and again. Just as a water-bath can become a new birth and the beginning of life with Christ, or breaking bread and passing cups of wine can nourish the soul and make strong and healthy disciples to follow Jesus, the sermon’s the Spirit’s work, not the preacher’s.

In what ways do you find preaching “sacramental”?

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