Writing a Sermon

It’s really rather funny, as I read all of these texts and articles and books on how to write a sermon.  The most useful about the process, for me, thus far has been Eugene Lowry’s The Homiletical Plot.  Not because I particularly like his type of sermon (narrative), but rather because he goes through the process of how one gets from a sermonic idea to writing a sermon.  And I laugh, because I have a very particular process.

First, I read the lessons from the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church.  We’ll be beginning Year B with this coming Sunday, starting the year with Advent.  In this way, we work our way through the Bible every 3 years.  The lessons and psalms are matched, so we generally have an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, a New Testament reading, and a Gospel reading.  So, I start with the readings.  If there is a passage I’m unfamiliar with, or want to get better insight, I take a look at some exegesis of that passage – what’s the literary style, the historical context, the cultural context, the specific words being used, and where else within the Bible do some of those specific words appear?

Generally, I’ll let all that percolate for a day or two, and then, depending on the time of year, I’ll do one of two things:  take a shower (as opposed to a bath, where I can take a book or writing materials), or mow the lawn.  Neither of these, of course, are conducive to being able to write anything down – my normal method of figuring out what I’m thinking.  It causes my mind to play with ideas, without writing them down, until I finally reach the “Aha!” moment, where it all comes together, and I can go, sit and write down the sermon.

Personally, I like to think that my conversations with God, along with inspiration from the Holy Spirit comes into play here, but either way, those are the two areas where those conversations are most likely to occur in such a way as to inspire the sermon.

My method works for me.  I’m quite certain that others like the outlining, crafting, cut/paste method used by so many preachers until they have put together a sermon word by painful word.  Likely, they are much more talented than myself.  But that’s okay.  As long as I don’t bore myself to tears, the congregation should be at least marginally pleased, or irritated, or thoughtful, or fired up, etc.

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Christ the King Sunday

One of the saddest passages I’ve ever seen is today’s Gospel.  Many look at it as part of the apocalyptic literature, telling of an end-time judgment, but it’s put here in Matthew’s Gospel among other parables about judgment for a reason.  It’s certainly a parable, by dictionary definition, for it is a short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson, and it’s a statement or comment that conveys a meaning indirectly by the use of comparison or analogy.

But what makes it sad is Christ’s description to both the sheep and the goats.  Looking at what He said to the sheep:  “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

On the one hand, the blessed, the sheep, asked “when” they had done all these things – and yet, they didn’t recognize God within the people they helped.  They helped because they were good people, and like the Samaritan, recognized their neighbor.  They were judged worthy, to take their inheritance, the kingdom prepared for them since the creation of the world.

On the other hand, the cursed, the goats, asked “when”.  They had done none of these things, because they didn’t recognize God within the people they passed by.  They were the Pharisee, claiming goodness, but their actions did not match their words.  They were cursed into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

Neither group recognized God within the hearts of those in need, but one group followed the greatest commandment as instructed by Christ, and one group didn’t try to find their neighbor.

There’s a story told of a young monk asking an older monk, “Father, if God is infinitely merciful, how can he deprive anyone of his heavenly kingdom?” The older monk answered, “Why do you keep turning your head from side to side?” The younger monk replied, “Because the sun keeps hitting me right in the eye and just won’t leave me in peace.” “Then you’ve answered your own question,” the older monk laughed. “God doesn’t deprive anyone of his heavenly kingdom. Some simply cannot bear the light, any more than you can bear the light of the sun.”

So let’s see if we can find our sunglasses, and look at this passage in another way.  We know from the last few weeks of these judgment parables, that everyone is waiting for Christ’s return.  With this parable, we know that Christ will return as King to sit in judgment upon those who have been waiting.  Let’s examine our two groups again – the blessed and the cursed.  Based on the criteria Christ sets out in this parable, the judgment is based upon how we have treated the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner while waiting. In this parable the community’s time of waiting is changed from a useless passage of time to a redefinition of community in the care of the neighbor, and from worry about the “when” of the coming of the Son of Man to the realization that the “when” has already taken place in the face of the needy.

And here is the answer to whether we are ready when the bridegroom comes, when the master returns.  Christ has made us aware of the least of us among society.  He described the values and practices of those who participate in the Kingdom of Heaven in the Beatitudes.  He tells us:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

And Christ has told us what to do.  Not only has he given us the Great Commandment, he gave us this parable, which clearly describes the “least of these”, not once, not twice, but four times within the same parable!  And still, we have difficulty in walking our Christian talk.

A little girl once asked, “If God is inside of me and is so big, why doesn’t he break through?”  Why doesn’t the grace and love of God break through in the way we speak, in how we act, in the many times we come in contact with others.  God has chosen to work in and through us who are called to be a part of the Body of Christ.  But he gave us free will as well.  We can choose to let God act through us, to be His hands, His voice, to treat the least of our society as we would treat Christ.

The phrase “the least, the lost, and the last” has often been used in sermons that talk about those we should be taking care of.  That’s a pretty amorphous description though.  So, if we want to be like the sheep, care for those Christ has told us to care for, for as He said, as we have done to the least of these, so have we done to Him – where will we find the least?

And with that one question, we have made ourselves goats.  We are looking for Christ, in order to treat Him well.  We’re not looking to fulfill the Commandment, but rather trying to find the “when” did we see Him and not care for Him.

So is the answer that we try to see God in every person we meet?  Do we try to be a good neighbor?  Or do we, like the little girl suggests, let God break through and act through us?  Do we recognize the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth, right now?

The sheep would seem to have little interest in relationships dictated by the terms of “social justice” or “evangelism,” which so often turn people into objects and abstractions. The relationships the sheep pursue, in contrast, locate them right in the middle of the least ones themselves, where the King Himself is.  For these, the Son of Man is not still coming. He is already here.

And when Christ the King comes to sit in judgment, will you be among the sheep, or among the goats?

 

As For Me

“I do not know you.”  That sentence reverberated in my head, over and over and over again.  “I do not know you.”  Could there be anything more devastating than knowing – you’re going to die.  There will be no eternal life.  How do I even justify my existence?  Is there penance enough?

God is outside of time.  What if I ask to be a cautionary tale to others?  What if, upon hearing my story, even one person ensures that they stay awake, aware?  I may not be chosen to live eternally, but I can help others to do so.  Oh, Lord, will you use my folly to save others?

Now we don’t know that that’s where this parable comes from, but what if it did?  It is devastating to be rejected by the bridegroom, because His word is final. The rejection is made even worse by Christ’s reputation for love and generosity.  It would have been so easy to please him! Why didn’t they do so?  Why don’t we do so?

Matthew’s Gospel tends to talk more about judgment than the other Gospels, and separating things – the wise from the foolish, the wheat from the tares, the fish in the nets.  There are a couple of chapters that include what are known as the judgment parables, and today’s Gospel is one of them.

Scholars vary in their understanding of what the oil in this parable represents.  If the thrust of this story is that we must be prepared with oil for Christ’s coming, what’s the oil?  Luther said that it’s faith.  Others have identified it as piety, good works, or a personal relationship with the Lord.

One approach to understanding the what the oil is, is to examine the context—both the narrow context of this particular parable, along with the series of four parables and then the wider context of Matthew’s Gospel:

In the Parable of the Faithful and Unfaithful Slave (24:45-51), the faithful slave is the one found at work when the master returns. Being prepared—having oil—means working faithfully for the Lord.

In the Parable of the Talents (25:14-30), the faithful slaves wisely use the resources entrusted to their care. Being prepared—having oil—means practicing good stewardship, having good ecological practices, carefully managing your time and money, being generous to those in need, proclaiming the Word.  The possibilities there are endless.

In the Judgment of the Nations (25:31-46), which is a parable after this one, the Son of Man rewards those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, and visit the prisoner— all of which corresponds nicely with what Jesus identified in this Gospel as the greatest commandment—to love God and your neighbor (22:37-40). Being prepared—having oil—means generosity to those in need.

So now this parable.  As we discussed a couple weeks ago, weddings at that point in time were actually about the celebration.  Today, we refer to them as wedding receptions.  Often, the bridegroom would begin at the house of his bride, and the wedding party would process to where the celebration would be taking place.  One of the things to keep in mind is that the five wise bridesmaids were rewarded, even though they didn’t share the oil they had with their sisters.  We might think the wise bridesmaids were acting selfishly, but they are instead acting with wisdom, particularly for their time.  It is far better that they use five torches to illuminate the pathway of the Bridegroom for the entire distance than to use ten torches at the beginning and thereby to risk having to walk in darkness at the end.  We can see lots of metaphors there.

In the wider context of this Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount, which covers two entire chapters on its own, gives us great insight into Christ’s expectations. Being prepared—having oil—means obeying Jesus’ teachings.

This parable speaks pointedly to those who have become Christian through an initiatory event, be that conversion, baptism or confirmation, without requiring a corresponding growth in discipleship. A good beginning is not yet a race well run, as all children today learn from the Tortoise and the Hare.

These stories in Matthew also generally include choices for both the wise and the foolish, and a delay in the master’s return.

Matthew addresses the delay in the coming of the bridegroom because people during that time believed that Christ would return “soon”.  The problem is, our concept of “soon” and God’s concept of “soon” are apparently very different things.  And people were beginning to question – why hasn’t Christ returned?  Where is He?  So Matthew uses a common idiom – the bridegroom is delayed – something that was not an unusual occurrence, and one that everyone could understand.  The problem again, is that definition of “soon”.

The concept of “hurry up and wait” is well known to those in the military.  Believe it or not, the military is part of the government, and the government isn’t always efficient.

“Standby” is a “preparatory command.” Usually the order to standby alerts a unit that it will “soon” receive some kind of marching orders, like “standby to launch.”

Unofficially, it’s used to tell junior members to be ready and wait. Often, troops find themselves waiting for long periods of time because of logistics or command indecisiveness.

Said sarcastically, “standby to standby” means that a unit is waiting to wait some more.  “Hurry up and wait,” also said sarcastically, pokes fun at the military’s propensity to perform tasks quickly, and then sit idly for long periods of time.

Like the military, being prepared, and then sleeping when you had the opportunity was a common occurrence.  Both the wise and the foolish bridesmaids in this parable fell asleep.  Staying awake can be used as an idiom for being aware or being prepared.

I’d like you to imagine yourself back in the first century of the common era.  You’re a Roman citizen, fairly well off.  You wear the best silks against your skin, are fairly well educated in the “classics”, can speak both Latin and Greek.  You’ve just kissed your newly cleaned child, breathing in the scent of the oils used to keep his skin in good condition, and sent him off with his nurse.  Now is a time when you can relax with your light evening meal of bread and dates, figs and a bit of meat, wines impeccably matching.  Life in your city was perfect.  You glance out the window, only in that split second seeing Vesuvius before being frozen in time, dying in superheated gasses and volcanic ash.  The explosion of Mt. Vesuvius was so sudden, the citizens in both the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were perfectly preserved in time, as we’ve seen in magazines (National Geographic, May 1984).  The saddest part is that these people didn’t have to die. Scientists confirm what ancient Roman writers record–weeks of rumblings and shakings preceded the actual explosion.  An ominous plume of smoke was even clearly visible from the mountain days before the eruption. They simply needed to be aware.

Now, living life aware or being “awake” does not mean that you have to forego sleep.  It means that you need to be vigilant.  Like these bridesmaids, if Christ returned tomorrow – would you be ready?

Let’s take a glance at our Old Testament lesson.  Joshua was clear with the Israelites – you either choose to serve God, or go wherever you want to go, away from the protection of God, to live and serve elsewhere.  We recognize that it wasn’t really a choice for the chosen people, but that was Joshua’s point.  You guys already chose, but you’ve forgotten to be aware that you made that choice.  You’re not living up to your choice.  And it’s the same thing for us – once you make that choice, be it through baptism, confirmation or conversion, you need to live up to it.  You need to walk your talk, because lip service is not going to cut it.

Now, the other thing that Joshua did was set up accountability for the people who made the choice.  “You are witnesses against yourself that you have chosen the Lord, and to serve Him.”  It’s our responsibility to help each other stay on that path, to walk the talk, and continue to grow.

Twenty centuries ago there was a different kind of preacher by the name of Paul. And when he came to the end of the road he did not write his memoirs in a villa on the Riviera. He sat in an old Roman jail waiting to have his head chopped off. The only stocks and bonds he had were stocks for his feet and bonds around his wrists. And he said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”  Like Joshua, Paul made the decision that “as for me”, I will serve the Lord.

That phrase, “as for me” has history also within our own American past.  Patrick Henry fired a verbal shot in an old church in Richmond that was heard around the world. It was on March 20, 1775, during a time when history moved rapidly.  The pacifying men of the time were trying to work out a compromise of peaceful coexistence, so to speak, with George III.  But Patrick Henry was fed up with appeasement, and he saw no sense in further negotiation. He said, “I don’t know what others will do, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.”

The die was cast and the Rubicon was crossed, and all bridges were burned and retreat was impossible. There wasn’t any uncertainty about where Patrick Henry stood. He cleared the air and stated the issue. There weren’t any third dimensions and middle ground. Such a speech is awfully out of date in this fuzzy day of wooly thinking when experts in double talk, in the art of almost saying something specialize in a straightforward way of dodging the issue.  That was not Patrick Henry’s way – no one doubted where he stood, because his yea was yea and his nay was nay. And while his contemporaries were going around their elbows to get to their thumbs, Patrick Henry decided that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points. His speech must have shocked the school of propriety, but he detonated a charge that blasted tyranny from our shores.  We have to wonder if, in his classics education, he knew about Joshua.  “As for me” makes a statement of not only belief, but of action.

We know that we have chosen to follow God through the sacraments of baptism and confirmation.  Yet we also know that if we allow ourselves to coast, to sleep, to be unready, we may be like the unprepared bridesmaids, or the people of Pompeii.  Our oil may be very low.  Are you and your household going to serve the Lord?

The last thing we want to hear is, “I do not know you.”  So this week, as you go through your daily routines, find ways to be aware of God in what you’re doing.  Our lessons point out the variety of ways that God has spoken to us, teaching us how to maintain an awareness of Him.  Pick one thing.  How are you going to serve the Lord this week?