Hi everybody! This is a sermon I wrote for my home congregation, who kindly invited me to worship with them and preach this morning. If it’s not clear from what follows, I kinda love those guys.
After going to the Festival of Homiletics last week (post to come, I hope!), two new things happened with this sermon. Firstly, I decided I really wanted to try to develop a more authentic voice in the pulpit: I totally get my “preacher voice” on sometimes, and an observation Nadia Bolz-Weber made last week really struck close to home. “If our voice in the pulpit isn’t authentic,” she said, “then the authenticity of our message is at risk.” (That’s a paraphrase, btw…don’t quote me.) So I wrote out this sermon as conversationally as I could, and then preached it without notes. As a result, what you read below isn’t exactly what came out of my mouth. But it’s close. And I’ve gotta tell ya, despite the utter terror of occasionally not being able to remember what paragraph comes next, it was a lot more fun not to be tied to a manuscript.
Secondly, Nadia also commented on how the “distractions” that buzz around your brain as you try to write a sermon are often…the sermon. I’d been reading a lot about the death of the church and burned-out pastors this week, and so the very first draft of writing I did for this sermon was a bunch of thoughts about how I encountered Jesus’ words: “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” in light of all my desperate striving to be…um…a person Jesus can tell things to. I was really surprised at how many of those thoughts ended up getting incorporated into the final draft. It offers a really cool technique for locating yourself in the text.
Without further ado…
Trinity Sunday, Year C
May 26th, 2013
“The Spirit is Still Speaking”
Grace and peace to you in the triune name of God: God who creates, God who redeems, God who sanctifies. Amen.
Today our scripture readings were sort of an embarrassment of riches, and on top of that, it’s Trinity Sunday. What is a poor seminarian to do? As it turns out, I ended up following where the gospel led me, and this didn’t include an exploration of God’s triune nature. So any of you who were hoping to hear a fifteen minute treatise on the doctrine of the Trinity have my permission to allow your attention to wander freely.
But let’s begin at the beginning: I want to start by telling you that I am grateful for the opportunity to preach this morning, and more than that: I am grateful to belong to this congregation, and for your prayers over the past 2 and a half years. They have been life-changing years, and each change has brought again and again the realization that I am blessed to have been brought up in Christ, by you.
I felt this blessing again when I got on St. Paul’s website this week to do some research for this sermon, and I downloaded your list of volunteer ministries. Do you know how many ministries are on that list? Forty-eight. Forty…eight. That is a lot. This is a church that takes seriously our ELCA motto: “God’s work. Our hands.”
I also realized, looking over that list, that I’d been involved in more ministry while I was growing up than I realized. I was an acolyte, and then a crucifer, starting at an age when I’m pretty sure that top-heavy brass cross outweighed me. Is it still that heavy? I sang in the choirs. My mom convinced me to do the assisting minister thing for a while, even though I was terrified of speaking in front of the congregation. (I got over it.) I helped my dad move chairs for meals and meetings. I grew up with firsthand knowledge that this church is a busy, vibrant, happening place.
Which is why it came as something of a shock to me when I got to seminary and was told that the church was dying.
This probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to you. For one thing, you’re probably tuned in to stuff happening outside your own head than I was as a teenager, and for another, the decline of American religion has been a pretty hot topic lately. It was only last year that the PEW Research Center came out about announcing that the number of self-identified “nones”—no religious affiliation—has increased to one in five Americans. I think it was the January edition of the Lutheran this year that had that picture of that pretty country parish on it with the big headline “THE SHRINKING CHURCH.” It was not a cover design to inspire comfort. There is a lot of anxiety going around the church. Have you felt it?
I wonder if it was anything like the anxiety going around the table during Jesus’ words from the gospel today. In verse two of this chapter, he gives the disciples a cover image that would rival even the January edition of the Lutheran: “a time is coming when the one who kills you will think he is offering service to God.” Can you imagine their faces? The expressions of disbelief and panic? Jesus follows up that happy thought by telling the disciples that they should be happy, really, that Jesus is going away, because that means the Advocate is going to come. All the disciples look at him like he’s crazy. Like, their teacher and friend and messiah just told them they should be happy that he’s leaving, because a really awesome lawyer is going to come and stay with them instead. And then, the clincher: “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”
I suspect the gospel of John was redacted somewhere along the line, because you know that at least one of the disciples—probably Peter—stood up at this point and said, “Really? Really. You’ve spent three years taking everything we thought we knew and stripping down and questioning it, and a seriously troubling amount of it didn’t work in this kingdom of God that you’re always talking about, and you called us to build up something different and better and more…you. And we did that! So come on, Jesus. Try us. I’m pretty sure this is stuff we need to know.” But all Jesus says is that the Spirit of truth is coming instead, and that Spirit will be their guide from now on.
I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t strike me as much of a consolation. David Foster Wallace said, “The truth will set you free, but not before it’s done with you.” Truth requires transformation. It requires us to change the way we see the world. To change our minds. To change our hearts. Truth is uncomfortable.
I wonder if that’s why Jesus said the disciples couldn’t bear it at that moment. Because he knew they were about to have to witness the crucifixion of their teacher and messiah and friend, and probably couldn’t stand to hear that the Spirit of truth was going to require even more of them. Was going to require them to do things like embrace the other, and invite Gentiles into their church, and to find a compassionate way to handle debates about meat sacrificed to idols and circumcision and parking lots and endowment funds, and to go out into the world to speak a word of peace to those who have so much to gain from violence and conflict.
Anxiety is a perfectly reasonable reaction to the work of the Spirit of truth, because the truth is hard to bear. It pushes us outside our comfort zones, and comfort zones are comfortable for a reason! They’re where we know we’re safe. But safe isn’t always salutary. Our best work, our best growth, happens when we push beyond the limits of our comfort zones. That’s what the Spirit of truth calls us to do as church: to push beyond the barrier of our anxieties and to do something brave and strange and beautiful that doesn’t seem like it’s going to work, but when it does, we see Christ in this world.
Like, when the church responds to the Spirit’s call by deciding to end malaria.
Or when the church makes sure kids get presents at Christmastime when their parents are in jail.
Or when the church takes a look at rules like, “women can’t preach.”
Or when the church plants a garden in the city as a sign of hope and goodness of God’s creation.
Or when the church lifts up the brokenness of the criminal justice system, where racism is so rampant that it is justly called “the new Jim Crow,” and says, “We need to talk about this.”
Or when the church responds to Code Purple and keeps vigil with the homeless on the coldest nights of the year.
Or when the church invites three-year-olds to help serve at communion, because they really believe that the Body of Christ belongs to and includes everyone.
I will confess to you that moving outside my comfort zone is something I struggle with. It’s a theme of my call story. The first time I thought of being a pastor was when a regular visitor to this congregation, R. Burkin, told me in high school that I should think about it. I don’t even know why he said that, I just remember thinking at the time, in the modest, self-effacing way I had as a teenager, “He’s right: I would totally make an awesome pastor…when I’m fifty.” Being a pastor was not cool enough to be on my radar at age 14. (Sorry, Pr. John.)
Then I went to college, and got a degree in Drama, and did some acting, and you know what? It was comfortable. I love acting. And I think theatre is important: it holds a mirror up to life, and we need that. But I was haunted by this niggling voice that kept asking me, personally, me, “Is this what you’re called to do?” I hated that voice. I wanted so badly for the answer to be “yes,” but there was a part of me that knew that it just…wasn’t…true. I managed to avoid that reality check for three years, and in the meantime, the work I was doing was more and more unsatisfying, and I wasn’t in happy in my comfort zone anymore. I was just scared to go outside it.
Eventually my acting job crumpled, as paper moons do, and it was only then, when I was already outside of my comfort zone, that I could even look at seminary at a real possibility. And even then, I was pretty sure God wasn’t calling me to ministry. I started the candidacy process to cover all my bases, and when I went in for my entrance interview with the synod staff, I told them that I really wasn’t sure I was called to ordained ministry. And they just smiled and said, “Keep discerning.”
I’m still discerning, and I will tell you that the best indication of when I’m on the right track has usually been when I feel out of my depth and afraid of what’s going to happen next. But I will also tell you that I don’t hear the voice asking anymore about whether ordained ministry is what I’m called to do. And I will tell you that I find profound meaning and fierce happiness in this work.
The Spirit of truth is still speaking in to her anxious disciples. Yes? The Spirit of truth is still speaking in this church. Amen?
There are a lot of competing voices: voices that are burned out, or frightened, or angry, and they are loud, and often they are influential, but they are not the only ones speaking. So next time talk starts up again about how the church is dying, listen past the anxiety for the truth that’s still speaking, reminding us that we are a resurrection church, and that on the other side of death and darkness and doubt, there’s an empty tomb and an Easter morning and tongues descending and all the wonderful and anxious chaos of God doing a new thing in this old church.