There wasn’t any specific requirement that he preach a sermon. He was not studying for the priesthood. Not even close. But his advisor was an priest in the Episcopal Church, and he sometimes offered the chance to deliver a sermon. It would be a dangerous business in almost any other denomination, but the Episcopal Church had long ago abandoned any theological tests. His advisor joked that most Episcopalians were Arians if they believed Jesus lived at all.
The Arian controversy, or heresy if one is Roman Catholic, is a belief that God, created Jesus, spinning him up out of nothing at some point to save the world. This would conflict with others who hewed more closely to monotheism in the third and fourth centuries after Christ. Jesus was part of the godhead, the trinity. Not surprisingly such theological refinements were shrugworthy to people in most pews whether Episcopalians or fundamentalists. These things weren’t why people went to church.
“It’s a small service,” his advisor said. “But people take the sermon quite seriously.”
“Sure,” he said. “I haven’t been to church in awhile. I’d love to.”
“You’ll need to learn the liturgy,” his advisor said. “I suggest you attend a couple of Sunday services. You’ll see what it’s like.”
So he did. And he found it much like the Roman Catholic services his mother used to call idol worship. The sanctuary of the church was ornate, not baroque or rococo, but by the standards of his church they were. There was stained glass with images along each side of the church. He’d spent most of his time in the theology of Christianity and its history. Somehow he’d skipped the liturgy.
The service was full of standing and sitting and organ music. Some of it he recognized, but it felt older than what he was used to. The opening processional, “O Worship the King, All Glorious Above!” hymn 388, was captivating.
There were no hands in the air, no speaking in tongues for sure. It was all scripted. But something about that was comforting. It felt as though something was pulling him forward, not unlike the call to accept Jesus as his personal savior, but it was a feeling that wasn’t fear. Church and fear and salvation all belonged together, but not here.
As he sat and stood and followed along, he wondered why these people came. How would he speak to these people with all this distraction? Why would they pay attention? Why would they care?
Later, he got the readings for the service he would be speaking at, one reading from Jonah and one from the Gospel of Mark.
“Don’t over think it,” his advisor said. “Work on putting the readings together.”
Later, in his office his advisor gave him a bit of a primer on sermons.
Refer to the Gospel, readings and liturgical calendar.
“There’s a reason why the Gospel moves into the congregation,” he said. “And then back up to the altar and in front of the preacher and then is followed by the Sermon. Even if you didn’t speak English, the idea is ‘this person is about to say something about what this other person, the deacon, just read.”
The sermon he insisted should not be about some agenda outside the Gospel or the liturgical calendar.
“There are all kinds of great and important social issues,” he said. “But never cram them into a sermon because tomorrow is Election Day!”.
Third, he said the sermon must coax the listeners into understanding the story, the narrative in the readings.
“At the heart of a good sermon is some kind of nexus between our broken, bored, distracted, television watching, worried, selves and God,” he said. “What does the Gospel have to say to me that can reattach me to my foundations.”
Here was a point he made with emphasis. He even moved from around the desk and sat next to him in the second chair in his office.
“Remind us why we are Christians, not just part of another social club,” he said.
“I got that feeling from being in church last Sunday,” he said. “Like people want to be there but they don’t know why.”
“Exactly,” his advisor said. “And last, be prophetic; a good sermon finds our smugness and our certainty about the idea that this is all about someone else.”
He stood up and walked back behind his desk.
“Yes, people in the pews often think that, ‘those people should know better.’A good sermon always ends with us coming away feeling like we need to do something different.”
That part he understood, even if he didn’t understand the liturgy.
When the day came, he walked up the steps to the microphone. Somehow he didn’t feel nervous. He was relieved the place was so empty, that it was a Wednesday mid-day service. He imagined that this was just like a class. He saw one older man blow his nose and look up at him and smile.
“Please be seated,” he said.
The cold room echoed with the noise of the wooden pews and rustling.
“The reading today is from the book of Jonah, the second chapter. In the first chapter, God calls on Jonah to save the city of Nineveh — in modern day Iraq, a place we’ve come to know in the last several months — and Jonah tries to run away. But God has a fish swallow Jonah. Jonah promises to save the city and in chapter three he does. In the fourth chapter Jonah sulks, and wants to die.”
His mind flashed through all the history he had to omit. The possibility that Jonah was satire, weird use of the term “King of Nineveh” when that was just one city, the fact that Nineveh does get destroyed later in the time of the profit Nahum. All that was on the cutting room floor, unshared.
“You see, Jonah knows God is merciful. He wants Nineveh to be destroyed. But God wants to use Jonah to save the city. We don’t know exactly the history that Jonah has with Nineveh. But have you ever prayed to be forgiven as “we forgive those that trespass against us” and not meant it? Have you ever wanted God to forgive you but, well, maybe give that other trespasser what they deserve?
“That’s Jonah. He’d rather have Nineveh destroyed and he sure doesn’t want to be the instrument of its salvation. Contrast this with Jesus, who himself, in today’s gospel, like Jonah, slept in a boat during a storm. Jesus was sent to save as well, but he did not run away from the task, but he went toward it. Jonah spent three days and nights in a whale but Jesus would die for three days.”
He paused. Did he have their attention? Someone sneezed.
“Can’t God do his own destroying and saving? God doesn’t need Jonah to destroy or save a city. Or does he? We might criticize Jonah for his resentment. But he is the pattern we follow. Shelter me from the heat, God; forgive me my trespasses, Lord; but the city of trespassers?”
Here he stopped for a moment and looked up. He remembered his father reading him a passage about the prophet Nathan who told a story to King David about a man who killed another man’s lone sheep. David wanted to know who this man was. “Thou art the man!” Nathan said to David.
“They have it coming after all!” he said of the trespassers. He looked out into the pews.
“God doesn’t need us. He’s God. He can do anything. But he’s telling us, ‘Go to Nineveh.’ He’s telling us, ‘Go the trespasser.’ You see, we can’t be saved without our neighbor; when we save the other, we too are saved. Salvation is not a solitary endeavor, or affirmation of the Creed. It isn’t a transaction between you and God. Salvation is to be forgiven”
And here he paused again.
“But listen closely to the words, ‘as we forgive.’ For though it comes first as we pray the Our Father, salvation is in the second part of the phrase.”
He tried to hammer each word like he was stamping them into metal.
“As. We. Forgive. Those.” He paused. “His forgiveness of us, is dependent on us forgiving others, even those who deserve what they have coming to them.”
He remembered as a child, other children daring each other to ‘go first.’ He ad libbed.
“You go first,” he said. “God is waiting.”
“Are you willing to accept His call? Are you willing to be saved? Amen.”
Featured image: Jonah and the Whale (1621) by Pieter Lastman