The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, April 17, 2011

I decided not to preach today

**NOTE -- This isn't a word-for-word reprint of the sermon I preached today as they usually are.  I didn't use a manuscript (very out of character for me).  And I also preached before the Gospel, instead of after.  Very unusual for the liturgy of my tradition, and as such, very unusual for me.  But I read a rationalization for doing this - particularly on Palm Sunday - in a Feasting on the Word commentary, and it made a lot of sense to me.  So I thought I'd give it a try.

As I said, I didn't prepare a manuscript, but focused my attention, as one of my friends has put it, on preaching from a prepared heart.  I wouldn't do it often - either rearrange the liturgy or not use a manuscript (not right now anyway) but I think it worked for today.  Here's my best memory of what I tried to say.**

Sunday of the Passion, Year A
Matthew 24:14-27:66


I decided not to preach today.

At least not like I normally would.

One thing you've probably noticed right up front is that the sermon usually follows the Gospel.  But we haven't read the Gospel yet, and here I am.

There's not a priest alive who hasn't, at one time or another, been grateful for the liturgy.  You see, even when words fail us - even when we feel utterly incompetent when facing the task of expounding upon or unraveling the words of the Gospel - even then, the liturgy never fails to preach.  When we fail (and we all do at one time or another) we can always count on the liturgy to find the message that we couldn't find.

That's true every Sunday and every other time we gather to worship God.

But perhaps it's even more true today, on Palm Sunday - the Sunday of the Passion.  The liturgy always says more than any one of us could ever say, but today it seems to be saying even more.

Most of you know that four years ago I had the amazing good fortune to be able to study in Jerusalem for Holy Week and Easter.  It's always an incredible time to be in Jerusalem, but that year it was particularly so.  It was one of the rare years when the Orthodox observance of Easter coincided with the Western observance of Easter.  It was also Passover for our Jewish brothers and sisters, as well as the celebration of the Nativity of Muhammad for our Muslim brothers and sisters.  All three Abrahamic faiths came together in a single holy time.  The atmosphere was electric with the anticipation of encounters with the Holy Spirit wherever we went.

I was there, specifically, to study the Holy Week and Easter liturgies of the Orthodox traditions represented in Jerusalem.  The experience changed my life in many ways, but I'll never forget the words of our lecturer near the beginning of the course, when he was trying to help us to wrap our minds around what would be, for many of us, our first experience worshiping in an Orthodox liturgy.

He explained a simple difference that would forever shape how I understand what we're doing here in worship.  He said, "For most of us in the Western churches, even the most catholic among us, it's hard to think of liturgy as something other than a commemoration.  When we do liturgy, we usually think of it as a remembrance of or an homage to things that happened very long ago.  But our friends in the Orthodox churches see things a little differently.  They see themselves as a part of the story more clearly than we usually do.  They see themselves as active participants in the ongoing drama of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus."

It changed my life.

With this view, liturgy can never be outdated, or archaic, or irrelevant.  Jesus wasn't just a great guy who did neat things a long time ago.  Life, death, and resurrection are happening around us all the time.  It's happening right now - in this city.  Even in this room.  It will be happening tomorrow, and every day in the future.

I've come to believe that that's always true.  But perhaps never in our liturgical lives do we act it out more clearly than we do today, on Palm Sunday.

Think about it.  We started in the Parish Hall.  We started today by shifting our focus, and doing things a little differently.  We drew attention from our neighbors as we foolishly walked across the front lawn of the church and gathered at the church door to pray again.  We joined our brothers and sisters of those many centuries ago in their joyful shouts and songs of "Hosanna!".

But somewhere along the way today - I'm not sure exactly where - the mood shifts.  We go from the excitement of a fun-filled parade in a different place and with a different focus, to - just a few minutes from now - joining our brothers and sisters of those many centuries ago in their hate-filled shouts of "Crucify him!".

How did it happen?

How did it happen then, and how does it happen now?

I don't really know.

But today things are a little different.  Maybe even a little uncomfortable.

We'll even read the Gospel a little differently.  Usually some of us walk into the congregation to proclaim the Gospel in the midst of you - but today, it's your job to take a share in the proclaiming.  We have readers who will read the parts of the Narrator, Jesus, the Disciples, Pilate, the Priests, and the Pharisees.  But your job is a little harder.  Your job is to fill in all the blanks - to be the voice of those unnamed characters that made up all the others.  You'll have to follow along.  You'll have to pay attention - maybe a little more so than your used to having to.

But the truth about our lives as Christians is, we all have a role to play.  Sometimes it takes some work, and sometimes it's uncomfortable, but we all have a role to play.  We all take part in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Think about that as you read these difficult words.  Think about it in the long silence which will follow.

What is your part in the story?  What has it been?  What do you hope it will be?

We all have our roles to play in this drama.

1 comment:

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Lovely, Jon. Now, I have learned something from a former seminarian. One of the many circles of life has found completions.