Readings Nehemiah 8:5-12, Acts 6:1-7
We are continuing our series on why we do what we do, reflecting on the building blocks of our Sunday service and why we do them. This week we come to the sermon… so the pressure is on me I guess to offer some sort of case for why we take 10-15mins each week to hear one person (predominately me) talk.
A handful of questions emerge as soon as you consider the existence of the sermon in the service:
Let’s consider preaching in light of our two readings today. The first is a passage we’ve explored before, the reading of the Torah to the assembly of Israel on return from exile. What is of note here is that while Ezra reads, a group of Israelites helped the people to understand the law… They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. The interpretation of scripture is not a new thing, it has not only become required in latter ages (as greater distance emerges between then and now).
In the second reading we see that the growing size (and need) of the early Christian communities necessitated a delineation and designation of roles in order that neither worship or service should be neglected. There is no establishment of hierarchy here, just a desire to ensure the essentials of a Christian community are covered. It also must be stressed that even though there is a delineation, it is not as though those chosen to ‘wait tables’ and ensure that the widows receive what they need are unfit, or unsuitable to proclaim the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection. Stephen, one of those mentioned, for example, spends the next few chapters doing nothing but preaching about Jesus (it is this that leads to his martyrdom).
Interpretation of Scripture and the delineation of roles to ensure ordered worship and effective care of the community. From this scriptural basis we can see the trajectories emerging that lead not only to the place of the sermon in the worship service, but also of ordered/ordained ministry where some in the community are recognised by that community as being called into particular ministry. This doesn’t create a hierarchy, it is not about recognising someone as set above, but as someone charged with executing a particular role within the church and being set apart in order to do that well… in this case, we might say, in order to be set aside in order to offer fruitful interpretation of the scriptures. An interpretation which can be offered in many different forms, one of which is the sermon.
The sermon testifies to the presence of God and the livingness of Scripture (which is not a book to be read as one might a historical text, but something we encounter and enter into, wrestling with it, sitting with it, questioning it, returning to it, enjoying it, so that it might permeate and shape the way we live together as disciples of Christ). And the sermon also testifies to the plurality of gifts bestowed by the Spirit and the diversity of distinct (though all essential) roles within the body of Christ.
The sermon also testifies to the freedom of the Christian, who is called to determine how they ought to follow the great commandments of loving God and loving neighbour in their own way and day. The freedom of the Christian to determine how to best proclaim and share the good news in the language, image, and idiom of their day. The freedom of the Christian to enter into a living tradition and wrestle with it until it bestows a blessing. And the sermon testifies that this is a communal task. For we who share in one baptism and one faith, also share one priesthood, and we each sit under Scripture, enter into an interpretive relationship, and consider how we respond to the good news of God’s completed work and ongoing presence.
Let’s consider an image: The sermon is not meant to be one way communication (despite what our architecture might signify). The reading from Holy Scripture invites us to enter a garden together. As we hear the Word read we might notice different phrases, images, conversations, tensions, hopes – just as when we enter a garden we might be struck by a particular colour, or shape, or tree, or flower, or sound. The preacher then, as one set apart in order to have time to meditate upon the word and learn from the depth and breadth of interpretation, can be imagined to act as something of a guide – who might draw our eye to a flower somewhat obscured by the larger more familiar trees, or help us to see why certain plants have been grouped together or held apart. Similarly, the preacher might be compared to the gardener who help us to understand that some fruits (though in the garden) are not fit to be swallowed whole (analogous to the manner in which the preacher helps us navigate what to do with some verses in scripture that advocate slavery or inequality between the sexes). The preacher too, in realising that the sermon is not a lecture, walks us through to a particular spot in the garden, suitable for this time of year, when the weather and light is just so, in order that we might be enriched and inspired by just the right flower for this season (an interpretive act that in no way disregards or dismisses the other plants all around us, but recognises that particular seasons are best served by particular fruits).
And none of this is to imply that the preacher performs this interpretation and proclamation as an act of individual genius. The preacher is shaped by the whole worshipping community – by their reflections on scripture, their worship, witness, and service. So too the preacher is enriched and equipped by the wider church (and beyond), drawing on a deep well of knowledge and experience. And finally, the preacher in their interpretation and proclamation is shaped by the Holy Spirit (the same Spirit who makes possible the interpretation, understanding, and reception of the whole community).
It is the Spirit who brings the Word to life, who transforms the text on the page from information to communication of God’s saving work and powerful presence. It is the Spirit that allows all of us to enter into the garden of scripture; calling to each of us to read and be fed, to play a role in the body of Christ, making each of us a priest. And it is this same Spirit, who can turn even the most mundane and ill-advised sermon into an encounter with the living God! Who sanctifies human words and their fallibility so they may glorify God and share the good news of the gospel. This same Spirit, who is not bound by the limits of the humanity of those speaking and listening, is able to warm hearts, and convict action, and engender hope in the most surprising and unexpected of ways.
And in the end, that is, in part, why we do what we do when we take time for a sermon… we wait on the Spirit to move in and through and beyond the words read from scripture and proclaimed in the sermon. Moving in and through and beyond those words so that we might know and be encouraged by the good news of God’s completed work and challenged and comforted by God’s powerful presence in our community today.
Image: Gari Melchers, The Sermon, 1886, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Henry Ward Ranger through the National Academy of Design, 1944.11.2
Please enjoy a collection of sermons preached in recent months at the Kirk. If you have questions about the sermons, or attending a service reach out using the Contact Page.