What with classes and papers and painstaking endeavors to say something true in the fog of rhetorical war, I had a difficult time squeezing out a sermon for today’s service. Though I am ordinarily quite susceptible to distraction, the past couple of days rendered me entirely distracted – especially because I felt as though the homily involved my saying some relatively Big Important things about myself and my faith, which I would rather. . . hey, look at today’s Dilbert!
I noticed after I sat down that the sermon placed “me” at its epicenter rather more firmly than I approve. On the whole, “my stuff” shouldn’t be the subject of a sermon, since a sermon should point to Scripture, not to the preacher. I’ve stuck with some qualifying expressions, though, because I think that in this case, I wouldn’t have been able to talk about “people’s faith” in the abstract; the rhetoric works, or doesn’t, to the extent that it invokes a concrete person with actual concerns and commitments. While I may well be self-deceived at this point, it seemed (intuitively, in prospect; deliberately, in retrospect) that the sermon required a specific subject, and that I couldn’t project it onto anybody else.
So, apart from some critical reflection on first person homilizing, and a relative lack of time to get well enough acquainted with the words I’d chosen that I could handle pacing and emphasis as well as I’d have wished, it went OK.
Dan 3:14-20, 24-28/Canticle 13/John 8:31-42
March 28, 2007
If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.
In the name of God Almighty, the Holy Trinity on high — Amen.
I am not willing to believe. The faith we gather here to learn, of which indeed I am a profess-or, entails daunting unlikelihoods; and although our lesson from Daniel tells us how God rescued Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace, I remember that two weeks ago Dean Hall reminded us that when the horn, the pipe, the lyre, and all the rest of the orchestra of coercion sounded, Oscar Romero was shot at his altar, and the morning news told how from Zimbabwe about Gift Tandare being murdered for refusing to bow down to temporal powers. This gospel lays claim to our lives and spirits with a comprehensiveness that balks my will. And those of you who have studied Augustine with me certainly recall that I sympathize with that saint’s argument against Pelagianism. The caliber of my will does not suffice to bring me by my own natural strength and good works, to faith and calling upon God. That’s a taller order than I can manage.
I am not willing to die. Though I would like to think that when the King called for the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and the entire musical ensemble (a passage I will remember my whole life, because it appears in one of the portions of the Old Testament written in Aramaic, which I had to learn to pass my doctoral exams), when the King strikes up the liturgical band, I would not bow down statue – even if it meant being thrown into the fiery furnace. But my will is weak; I have grown attached to the creatures of this world. My family; my vocation; the taste of the peanut sauce on the Rama Tofu at Cozy Noodle; the privilege of working among you, of your trust that I’ll help prepare you to serve God’s people, the honor of the church’s trust that I won’t break any bruised reeds or quench any dimly burning wicks. The intense satisfaction of striving among you, and sharing in your progress in the gospel – along with peanut sauce and other such carnal joys – appalls my will, and binds me to these temporal things, the things that are passing away.
In these respects, I remain a slave to sin. My willful inclination to limit believing to the conditions I set, and to treat my being alive as the normal condition of the universe, obstruct my growth toward God.
Of course, what I will isn’t the issue, because death is not waiting around for me to volunteer. Indeed, if God made sporadic exceptions for deserving candidates, I’d still be last in line for the exemption clause. Even if sanctity insulated us from mortality, I can’t bluff you all into thinking holiness is my strong suit; how much less could I fake out the God who will judge heaven and earth in wisdom and truth? The examples of Romero and Tandare suggests that far from keeping death at bay, the way of the cross draws us closer to death. I have already been afforded fifty years, much more than many holier sisters and brothers of ours, more than I can fairly ask. My willingness isn’t at issue; I will die.
And whatever may be the condition of my will, I continue in Jesus’ word. I participate in the sacramental life of the church, in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, and in the prayers. I cling to the hope attested by the saints, embodied in Christ, made real afresh in love and patience and grace in our midst. The life of the Body of Christ surrounds and envelopes me; the Body is greater than I am and prevails over my lack of resolve. My willingness isn’t at issue.
That is the truth; by that truth, my will is made free.