Saturday, December 20, 2008

A model sermon

There are many sermons available on the internet. This one caught my eye. It comes via the Covenant site from a recent conference of American and British clergy committed to finding a way forward through present controversies for the Anglican Communion. I note the way the preacher carefully selects six themes in two groups of three matching themes around the two headings of Warning and Promise. Read on ...

Three Admonitions, Three Promises
By Nathan Humphrey | December 19, 2008

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of messages from the Covenant authors’ retreat and our public conference, held on December 4-6 in Dallas. For information on sponsoring a Covenant conference in your diocese, email Craig Uffman at assi… or leave a comment on this post.

The following homily was offered by The Rev’d N.J.A. Humphrey as part of Morning Prayer that began the Covenant Conference on Saturday, December 6, 2009 (I Advent (Year One)) at the Church of the Incarnation in Dallas, TX. Fr. Nathan’s text was Luke 21:5-19.

In our gospel reading from Luke this morning, we find an apocalyptic discourse centered on the destruction of the one thing the Jewish people of Jesus’ day took the most pride in: the Temple. I am from the Diocese of Washington, where we have a rather nice cathedral, which I would hardly want to see destroyed. By comparison, I don’t think we can possibly comprehend the disciples’ sheer horror when Jesus proclaims, “the days will come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”(I was reminded, by the way, that in 1974, before the Mormon Temple in Washington D.C. was consecrated, it was opened to non-Mormons for a tour. Afterwards, all the carpet that the tourists had walked on was reportedly torn out and replaced with fresh carpet. Someone I know took that tour, and told me that inside there was a mural depicting the Second Coming of Jesus. Fire and brimstone was raining down upon the National Cathedral.)

Faced with such a dire prediction, it’s no wonder the disciples are anxious to know when this will happen, and what signs will foreshadow such a [catastrophe, a calamity, a cataclysm]!

But wait, there’s more. Jesus tells them that false messiahs will come, that they will be betrayed by family and friends, that some of them will be killed. And yet, paradoxically, he says, “not a hair of your head will perish.”

Read from one perspective, these words are pretty bleak. But from another, they are full of hope and promise and wisdom.

Jesus gives us three admonitions and he gives us three promises. The three admonitions are: “Do not go after them,” “Do not be terrified,” and “Do not meditate beforehand how to answer.” Allow me to re-formulate these admonitions alliteratively as: “Don’t be seduced, don’t be scared, and don’t be studied.” The three promises are: “This will be a time for you to bear testimony,” “I will give you…wisdom,” and “By your endurance you will gain your lives.” These promises likewise lend themselves to a common theme, which I will call the Three Graces: the grace to witness, the grace of wisdom, and the grace to withstand. Let’s look at each one briefly.

First, we are told: Don’t be seduced. Jesus says, “Take heed that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them.” “Led astray”—other translations, following Jerome’s Vulgate, render this, “do not be seduced.” I glean from this that we need to be somewhat skeptical that anyone has a corner on who Jesus is—including people we are inclined to agree with. We are too easily seduced by images of Jesus that are skewed in one direction or another. So, too, we need to resist the reckless urgency of the moment implied when people tell us, “The time is at hand!” We are warned against following those latter-day messiahs on either the left or the right who promise us that they can lead us to a new Promised Land, a purer Church, or even a radically just and better World. Don’t get me wrong, the Church needs discipline and the World needs justice, but in seeking these things it is too easy to be led astray by little messiahs with big agendas.

Second, we are told: Don’t be scared. And what could possibly scare us? Wars, tumults, earthquakes, famines, pestilences, terrorism—in other words, the usual suspects. This advice is easier said than done, of course, though I personally am a fan of Rabbi Friedman’s “non-anxious presence” approach to ministry. If we get wrapped up in our fears and anxieties, if we let the secular or ecclesiastical terrorists of either side get to us, something dreadful happens: we lose perspective. Which is worse, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem or the deposition of the bishop of Ft. Worth? Is this the worst chapter in Church History? It is true that we are suffering from a crisis, but a crisis is also an opportunity to step back and put things in perspective. And we can only do this if we refuse to be terrified or taken over by the pain and sadness that surround us.

Third, we are told, in essence: Don’t be studied. When we face any sort of testing of our faith on the part of others, especially authorities, we are told, “Do not meditate beforehand how to answer.” Luckily for you, I do not apply this admonition to sermon preparation, otherwise we’d be here all day. I don’t think Jesus is telling us not to be reflective, but not to rely on our own wits alone.

This brings us to the three promises. Looking back over the text, we can see that Jesus promises us first that “This will be a time for you to bear testimony.” This may not seem like much of a promise, but it is really a very exciting opportunity. I was told once that the Chinese word for “crisis” also means “opportunity.” (Perhaps this is why an understated Chinese curse, I’ve been told, is “May you live in interesting times.” “Interesting” times are often times of crisis.) The word Jesus uses here for “testimony” is the word for witness—“martyr.” In a crisis, if we are open to receiving it, we are given the first of our Three Graces, the grace to witness to the love of God for us in Christ and the relationship that we are called into as members of Christ’s One (yet broken) Body, the Church.

This promised grace to witness is followed by a promised grace of wisdom, which comes on the heels of the last admonition quoted above: “Settle it therefore in your minds, not to meditate beforehand how to answer; for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.” Unfortunately, I don’t believe Jesus is promising us that we will win every argument, or that people will be convinced by what we have to say. The promise of a wisdom “which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict” is not so much about outcomes as it is about faithfulness. We are not called to manage outcomes. We are called to speak the truth as we know it in Christ, and even more importantly, to live that truth in our relationships with others, whether they are our “adversaries” or not.

Finally, we are promised that “by your endurance you will gain your lives.” (“Endurance” here, by the way, can also be rendered as “patience.”) The life we will gain isn’t necessarily this life, since Jesus gives this promise in the context of a discourse in which he informs his disciples that some of them will be put to death because of him. Rather, I take Jesus to mean in part that if the life we live here is marked by patient endurance, it will be worth the living. Patience is a virtue, and it is one that I know from experience comes only by grace. This third and final grace to withstand is perhaps the most difficult grace for Americans to become open to receiving. We are people of action, after all, and in order to get things done, a little impatience is thought to be a good thing. But with the grace of wisdom comes the grace of patience, both of which are needed in order to claim fully that promised grace of witness.

It is as a witness to patient, wise endurance that we are gathered here this morning. As we meditate on the words presented to us by our conference speakers, I hope that we will be equipped so that come what may, we won’t be seduced, we won’t be scared, and we won’t need to act “studied,” as if we know all the answers ahead of time. Rather, we will, I hope, be equipped to abide ever more deeply in God’s grace and love, that we may in our witness show forth the wisdom that comes from above, thereby withstanding all the temptations that keep us from living into the reconciling mission we are called to as members of Christ’s Body.

1 comment:

Mark Hollingsworth said...

Thanks for your sermon. I just ran accross this blog somehow. I appeciate your good word from the Lord.