July 8, 2012, The 6thSunday After Pentecost
Year B, Proper 9
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was
“Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown…”
One of the most frequent pieces of feedback that I get here from people at Resurrection is that you all are happy with my preaching. I appreciate that feedback. It is important that we understand a bit more about that part of our relationship, the preaching part. I am going to lift the curtain a little bit, talk a little of the process of homiletics, because we do have a very curious relationship in this regards. I hope they don’t take my priest guild card away for revealing any trade secrets… A preacher-congregation relationship can only happen, well, can only happen in an authentic or even sustainable way, if there are some assumptions about each other. The problem is, that these assumptions, the conditions that make for a good homiletic relationship usually remain nameless. So with the occasion of Jesus’ rejection in his hometown, I want to talk a little bit about what it is that we are actually doing here.
What is it that we are doing here? What is the purpose of the sermon as an element of the Mass? ___________.
– Reflection on the gospel, fleshing out the story so we might understand some of different perspectives we can bring to bear on it. This is called hermeneutics. “Why might this have been written this way, and for whom?”
– Opening it up, unpacking it, translating it, even.
– Contextualizing the gospel: How does this matter to us? (Or to be truly radical, “Does this matter to us now, and how?”)
– Teaching: Passing on information, teaching doctrine, relating the facts (sic.) of history.
– Then of course there is the real-time revelation of the Word of God.
How do these things happen? Well, some of it comes from this side of the pulpit. What the preacher brings to the table matters. Some of this comes through training. In this church, the Anglican church, we have what is called a learned clergy. You can always tell how learned a clergy person is by the size of their student debt; I am rather extremely learned it would seem. Priests are educated in seminary or divinity school in theology, Bible, history and ethics, even world religions, giving us (hopefully) enough information if not knowledge to have something intelligible to say. We are also, most of us, trained in the practice of preaching. How to pray, study for and prepare a sermon as well as oratory practices for clear delivery. (I skipped the class on talking slowly).
So part of it is training, but part of it is distinctly not. Part of it is not even about the preacher at all, though it does flow from this side of the pulpit. I am talking about the revelation of the Word stuff. A big part of the homiletic process, in the world of liturgical theology at least, is that the Word that is static within the pages of Holy Scripture is illuminated, enlivened, made manifest, brought to fruition by the direct movement of the Holy Spirit in the homily. Through prayer and preparation, the preacher tries to get out of the way of the process. He or she tries to get out of the way of the movement, the energy that flows in the homiletic process. You try to get out of the way and let God’s light shine, which certainly doesn’t need the preacher’s seal of approval or even consent. The less and less it is about the preacher, the more and more it might be about the Spirit. This really is the goal. Think about it, how do I start sermons? “In the name of God…” That is kind of a big statement, to be saying something on behalf of God. My primary priest mentor began with, “May God’s Word be spoken and God’s Word be heard.” Sometimes it feels presumptuous to even imagine speaking in the name of God, but other times, when the stars are aligned, and the moon is in the appropriate house, when the heart is cracked open enough… something can happen.
The thing is that the preacher part of all of this is only half, if even half of the equation. This is where our gospel comes in today. There is Jesus, whose journey so far has been marked by large crowds and miracles of healing and casting out demons, and he lands on the doorstep of his home town. And there, “a prophet is not without honor except in his home town.”
This is new to me. Not preaching, I’ve been preaching regularly since for more than 10 years, but what is new to me is to be preaching every week, to the same congregation, as a priest serving that congregation. What we are experiencing is just the opposite of what Jesus experienced in his hometown. Jesus was known there, of course, but not as a wise man, not as a rabbi, certainly not as a prophet or Son of God, but as the son of Mary, brother of James, Joseph and Judas. No one expected him to say anything worth hearing, so they didn’t. In that context, he was powerless, His healing didn’t take, His words were not heard.
What I have experienced here is just the opposite. The power that has come through in this preaching ministry has very little to do with me, and has not much to do with what is said, but it has mostly to do with your all’s expectation, your openness, how willing and able you are to place yourself into a posture of receptivity. Human beings are predisposed to trust, or believe people who we want to trust or believe. And folks we don’t expect to trust or believe, folks we have not granted that inner authority too, we are not going to take their words in nearly so deeply.
I have been preaching for years, and yes, my technique has gotten tighter with experience, but the reception I have received here has been better than anywhere else before, and that has everything to do with your expectations, yourwillingness to hear, your ability to put personalities aside and perceive what may very well be the movement of the Holy Spirit. It is all about what we expect from someone. As I said at the beginning, it is about assumptions.
I was in a gallery in New York a few weeks ago. One of the security guards was helping us navigate our way through an installation piece and he was just full of jokes; kind of annoying jokes. I said something like, “you must be a comedian?” and he said, “I’m trying, not supporting myself with it yet, but here’s a flyer to a show I am doing tomorrow.” You know what, his annoying jokes instantly became funnier to me. He did not get funnier, but I was willing or able or something to take what he heard as being funny. His statured changed somehow within me and he got the benefit of the doubt from me. The same thing happens here.
You expect all these great things from this pulpit, and truly, now that this relationship has begun, and my preaching is well received, basically no matter what I say, truth will be revealed, relationships to God and neighbor will be deepened. The kingdom of God will be nearer, and really. This has nothing to do with me; it has everything to do with our relationship and the assumption that God is at work here. And the truth that is revealed is not my truth, not my doing, but is the movement of the Holy Spirit that allows God’s word to be heard through morass of me being a clanging gong up here. Jesus’ neighbors had no reason to believe a word he said, so they didn’t. Their loss. I seem to be getting the benefit of the doubt here; hopefully not your loss, particularly in the long run.
All of what has been said above is true. The hows and whys laid out about preaching, but a big piece is missing. What is another purpose of the whole Liturgy of the Word? _____ What are we being set up for? The Mass. The Eucharist. All of this work, all of this intention and attention is designed to lead us to this table in front of us all here. Holy Scripture, present moment interpretation and reflection, the prayers and Creeds, all of these things, contained within the cadence of our liturgical heritage, carried by the hymnody and other sacred music forms, this whole shape of the liturgy leads us to this very place where the words and thoughts and feelings, our companions, friends and community, our ancestors, contemporaries and descendants gather to commune with the real spiritual presence of the living God. This is the Eucharist. It is the center of our church’s life, and the liturgy of the Word is part of the path that leads us their. This path brings us together so we can present ourselves before God, worshipfully, together, about as spiritually, intellectually and emotionally joined as a group of people this size can get. It is a glorious path that leads right to this table.
Except for today, we have a quite wonderful detour through the other sacrament our Lord Himself instituted. Master Calvin Cabeza, the second youngest member of our community will be welcomed and marked as one of Christ’s own here in our midst in just a minute. Where we experience the eternal and actual presence of Christ in the form of bread/body – wine/blood in the celebration of the Eucharist, in the sacrament of Baptism, we experience the eternal and actual presence of God in the transformation of a little boy into a little boy in an indelible relationship not only with God in Christ and the Holy Spirit but with two thousand years of Christian ancestors, a billion brothers and sisters alive right now and God alone knows how many generations to follow, and all of us. So Calvin, as we approach this important moment in your life, I hope this homily has prepared you for what is to come, at least in the next five minutes. Or at least I hope these words lulled you into grogginess before we get down to business at hand. AMEN