Scriptures, Society, “Spirituality” and Sermons

May 5, 2011 — 4 Comments

Given the events of the last ten days, I’ve been doing lots of thinking about the work of the sermon within the context of the liturgy. Back in seminary, I was taught that, because our worship as Episcopalians is centered in the Eucharist, the sermon’s major function is to “break open” the words of the Scriptures the community has heard as a means of leading us towards the breaking of the bread at the Holy Table. In this view of liturgy, the preached Word has a somewhat different function than say, in a typically Protestant denomination in which the sermon is the key component of the worship experience. As one professor offhandedly said to me at lunch in the seminary cafeteria one day, “If people want to stand up and cheer after one of your sermons, you’ve made the preaching event about you and not about God. The place people should feel the need to cheer is upon the invitation to receive Eucharist.”

Now, nearly nine years into the vocation of pastor/priest/preacher, I’m not so sure about my professor’s certainty. To be sure, as a preacher within a “lectionary Church” means I don’t get to pick the passages I want to explore on any given Sunday — they are chosen for me by the framers of the Revised Common Lectionary. My choice is to remain under that discipline, even when it’s not completely obvious to me how any of the passages offered by the lectionary actually speak to whatever might be going on in the world around us. And while I don’t aim for a cheer after a sermon, I continue to hope a vague memory of the words lobbed in the direction of parishioners’ ears lasts at least until Sunday dinner.

I am fully aware that clergy types are the ones charged by their ordination vows to study the Scriptures alongside of and on behalf of their particular congregations. A part of our job is to remind the folks who gather from Sunday to Sunday of how the narrative of Jesus is separate and distinct from our narrative as “Americans” or “good people”. Sometimes the narrative of Jesus is hidden from us for the other six days of the week. We get so busy living our lives we forget the sort of life we who call ourselves Christians are called to live. In a culture that worships individuality, we Christians stand in need of constant reminding that we are a “people” and that our faith is not so much an uber-private collection of our innermost thoughts, but is the rich deposit of the thoughts, prayers, hopes, dreams and failures of those who have walked the way of Jesus before us.

The temptation for a preacher in any given week is to take the free ride — offer a bit of a devotional talk, peppered with pithy pious platitudes and geared toward the individual becoming “better” (maybe a bit nicer, a little more thoughtful, saying the right prayers, or reading a snippet of religious literature here or there). After all, in a culture that has a do-it-yourself attitude toward “spirituality”, what could be better?

Offer the three point plan on being a better spouse, parent, neighbor or friend. Share five steps to overcoming this or that middle class malady (anxiety, depression, anger, etc.). Tell a nice story with a good moral. Help people feel good about feeling religious. Keep spirituality in its “place” — hidden from view in the deepest recesses of our souls.

God forbid that anyone would know our spirituality (and our religion) actually impacts the way we live the rest of our lives! And woe be unto any preacher of the Episcopal variety who dares flirt with the notion that the Gospel might actually challenge the notion that the god in whom Americans purport to “trust” and the god upon whom Americans call to “bless” our nation is NOT the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul, Polycarp, Iraneaus, Boniface, Calvin, Barth, Bonhoeffer or Romero. On a practical note, exactly what do we hope to accomplish in a sermon confined by the constraints of time and people’s ever-shrinking attention span? Truthfully, exactly how much of any sort of thoughtful response toward anything can be offered in the 10-12 minutes the average congregation is prepared to sit through as “sermon time”? This time limitation isn’t the fault of a preacher’s listeners…it’s the natural outgrowth of all that we are attempting to accomplish within the parameters of the liturgy.

So, this Sunday, I will stand in the midst of slightly less than two hundred souls and dare to utter something toward proclaiming a “word of the Lord”. I will do so with a set of texts given to me by the people of God throughout the ages and assigned to be read on this particular day. I will stand there and look out at a people who have, in the past week, been witnesses to destruction in the American South wrought by horrific storms. They have also been witnesses to the media storm in the aftermath of an American military action that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. With the swiftness of communication and the immediacy of “news”, it’s easy to forget that just over a year ago we were watching the oil slick spread over the Gulf of Mexico and that a nuclear disaster continues to unfold in the aftermath of the indescribable devastation wrought by the earthquake/tsunami in Japan just a few short weeks ago. Here in Wisconsin, the days of protesting crowds filling the state Capitol Building have morphed into the tedium of watching the results of the legislation passed in the midst of those protests — as the impact upon people from all walks of life becomes more and more visible (1,000 positions cut from Milwaukee Pubic School system being one tiny example). Perhaps the reason so many preachers opt to take their homilies in the direction of personal piety is because there’s so little we can actually do to impact any of this. Perhaps the other reason is we know the risk we take in attempting to speak toward any of it is to lose the confidence of the pledge-paying parishioners who fund our salaries. Or maybe, just maybe we are speechless ourselves…and yet our vocation pushes us to speak.

So here I go again…off to work on a sermon. Uncertain of what I will say. And more and more uncertain that twelve minutes is enough time to say much of anything meaningful.

4 responses to Scriptures, Society, “Spirituality” and Sermons


    The above post is the result of me wrestling, for the better part of the past twenty-four hours, with an anonymous letter I received via USPS yesterday. The letter was without return address, identifying marks or signature. I have no idea if the author of the letter is a parishioner of Trinity Church, Wauwatosa or not…I’m not sure my above attempt gets to the heart of the letter writer’s concerns, but it is an attempt to begin responding. I suspect the sermon on Sunday will be another attempt. What saddens me is that, if I am the author’s pastor/priest, there was such a certainty on her/his part that the issues raised in the letter would not be addressed in any fashion within this community of faith. And, for the record whatever I will preach come Sunday will have much more to do with me attempting to listen for God in the midst of the confusion of life and less to do with answering the concerns posed by someone who is either exceedingly hurt or angry (or possibly both) and who has chosen not to speak with me directly.

    In the meantime, here is the letter verbatim:


    Please Gary, help me, help us understand how the joyful acknoledgement of killing Osama Bin Laden is an act of justice? I take no pleasure in this killing. As a friend posted on Facebook,

    “I can understand why they had to kill him, but I can’t understand taking joy from it. Isn’t a celebration of death just a symbol that we’ve lost our faith in each other? The only explanation otherwise is that we want death for ourselves.”

    From a spiritual perspective, I am struggling with what we have done and how we, as shown by the leaders of this nation, are rejoicing in the retribution we seem to have extracted. Where are we headed? Where is this nation headed? Where or what are our foundations?

    Unfortunately, I know that my priest will not address this issue in these coming days nor during our community worship on Sunday. This is incredibly distressing to me, as I know that I cannot be the only person feeling incredible sadness, disorientation and conflict. How do we begin the road back to a collective value system that repsects justice, honors human life and lives out the commandments we have been given?

    (End of letter)


      I just now made it over to your blog because, well, school was happening to me, but I second everything that Lyndon said about people-as-symbols. Back to your original post . . . one of the things that often bothers me as an Episcopalian at a non-Episcopal seminary – who is taking homiletics from a Presbyterian – is the extent to which we often turn the proclamation of the Word into an afterthought, the warmup before we get to the REAL, important part. This often results (although not with either of you guys, obvs) in sermons that are just dialed-in, detached, devoid of any real Good News and free of any serious thought. I guess what I am hoping is that it really is possible for preaching in the context of a sacramental tradition to be a matter of both/and, not either/or.


        agreed, Kara. We have turned ‘theology as narrative’ into ‘narrative as theology’. Translated in the general stream of protestant practice, that ‘narrative’ becomes about us, not God. For some reason people (that is, preachers of all stripes) have made a fetish out of ‘story’. Part of the reason is that a ‘story-shaped’ world is a lot easier to deal with than the metaphysics of the incarnation.


    The author of the letter raises the place of “symbol” in the assassination of Bin Laden. The question is: what kind of symbol is the celebration of the death of one person?

    I am reminded here of something Rowan Williams wrote in “Writing in the Dust”. “When we strike our at a symbol such as a flag”, says Williams, “we hurt nothing except perhaps the self-esteem of those who use the language of which it’s a part.” But, Williams continues, “when we decide to treat people as symbols, the story is different.” With actions like that recently taken against Bin Laden, we are engaging in the terrible simplification of striking against symbols that are not representations (like a flag) but are flesh. We are being invited, I believe, to see in this one act a just attack against what Bin Laden represented. But all we have done is replicate the very logic of the terrorists we oppose. We have made people into symbols, and in doing so, have robbed them of the need for just action. This is reason for lament.

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