Part IV of a VII Part Series

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”    –Luke 4:18-19


I’m going to give you a chance to escape before it’s too late, because this sermon might not be to everybody’s taste. I am arguing this morning that one of the Seven Habits of Highly Faithful Churches is preaching, so I am going to preach a sermon about sermons. So I wouldn’t blame you if you left right now. Self-referential works seem initially unpromising, but in fact some self-referential works turn out to be worth the time and trouble.

There are many good books about books: Fahrenheit 451, 84 Charing Cross Road, The Book Thief, The Fault in Our Stars.

There are many good movies about movies: Sunset Boulevard, Singing in the Rain, Tropic Thunder, The Artist, Saving Mr. Banks.

There are many good songs about music: The Sound of Music; Do-Re-Mi; 76 Trombones; Piano Man; Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man; The Stones’ It’s only Rock and Roll (But I Like It); Joan Jett’s I Love Rock and Roll; When in Our Music God Is Glorified.

There are many good plays about plays: Kiss Me, Kate; 42nd Street; A Chorus Line; The Producers; A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and Hamlet. The greatest play of any age in any language is about…a play. So maybe it’s possible to preach a decent sermon about sermons; we’ll see.

Last week I noted that the vivid zenith of Roman Catholic worship is that fraught moment when the priest raises that wafer high above his head and fractures it audibly in the hearing of the congregation and speaks those sacred words Hic est corpus meum–“This is my body”–and that Eucharistic bread magically, mysteriously, and literally transforms into the body of the Lord himself, so that when the Christian lets that wafer dissolve on her tongue, Christ himself unites with the Christian. Literally. It is an extravagant and remarkable but deeply beautiful hypothesis.

What is the equivalent moment in Protestant worship? For better and for worse, the zenith of Protestant worship is the sermon. Its purpose is the same as that of the Catholic priest who cracks that wafer: to bring Jesus into your presence.

Here’s how my hero Frederick Buechner describes that sacred moment: “The preacher climbs the pulpit with his sermon in his hand. He hikes his robe up around his knees so he won’t trip over it on his way up. His mouth is a little dry. If it weren’t for the honor of the thing, he would just as soon be somewhere else. In the back rows, the older folks jack up their hearing aids. In the front, a young mother slips her six-year-old a Life Saver and a Magic Marker. A college sophomore home for the weekend, who is there because he was dragged there, slumps forward with his chin in his hand. The Vice-President of a bank, who twice that week has seriously contemplated suicide, places his hymnal in the rack. A teenager, alone in the knowledge of her pregnancy, feels the life stir within her. A High School math teacher, who for 20 years has managed to keep his homosexuality a secret, for the most part even from himself, creases the order of service down the center with his thumbnail and places it under his knee. The preacher deals out his sermon notes like a riverboat gambler. The stakes have never been higher. Two minutes from now, he may have lost them completely to their own thoughts, but at this moment he has them in the palm of his hand. The silence in the cavernous sanctuary is deafening because everyone is listening to it; everyone is listening, including even himself.”[1] They are waiting for God.

Someone once defined preaching as “the sacrament of words.” St. Augustine defined a ‘sacrament’ as “a visible sign of an invisible grace.” The water of baptism, the bread and the wine of the Eucharist: visible signs of an invisible grace. A sermon should be “an audible sign of an inaudible grace.”

So let me use one of the most famous sermons in history as my model. To be perfectly honest, this particular sermon didn’t actually go very well, but that doesn’t make it a bad sermon. It’s Jesus’ first sermon back in his home town of Nazareth. This sermon offers three qualities that most sermons should feature: concision, challenge, and comfort.

“Filled with the power of the Spirit,” says Luke, “Jesus returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread throughout the land. He began to teach in their synagogues, and was praised by everyone.” Oh man, everybody loved him! Joel Osteen never knew such acclaim and popularity. Mother Mary is so proud she has to start hanging onto the furniture so she won’t escape earth’s gravity like an over-inflated helium balloon. She goes straight to her synagogue and begs the rabbi to invite Jesus as a guest preacher.

So the rabbi capitulates and Jesus arrives for his inaugural sermon in his hometown confident that he will be well-received by the folks who knew him best and raised him well. The Sunday School teachers who taught him everything he knows about God are out there in that congregation. The sixth-grade grammar teacher who taught him to parse Hebrew verbs and decline Aramaic nouns is out there beaming proudly–at the beginning, anyway. The Little League coach who taught him to hit a curve ball when he was 12 is there. Mother Mary was there and his brothers and sisters, yeah?

The senior rabbi hands him a scroll from the prophet Isaiah, and Jesus rolls it out till he finds what he’s looking for, chapter 61, verse 1: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, release for the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, liberty to the oppressed, the acceptable year of the Lord.” And then he snaps the scroll closed, proclaims “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,” then sits down. A little scripture and a little coda: now that’s a good sermon, partly because it was short.

Look, I know that in our own day preaching is almost as obsolete as the 8-track tape. The Talking Head is dead. You rarely hear 16 minutes of uninterrupted human speech in the twenty-first century; the classroom, maybe, but even there, speeches and lectures are giving way to pictures, Powerpoint, and dialogue rather than monologue.

So, no chubby sermons. I promise not to waste your time. Have you ever sat through a sermon that was longer than a Chicago winter? Don’t answer that. You know what Mark Twain said: “Few sinners are saved after the first twenty minutes of a sermon.”[2] So give me twenty minutes and I’ll give you Jesus. The rest is up to you. I promise not to waste your time reviewing books; sharing cute but pointless anecdotes about my children; repeating without additional insight what you’ve already read in The New York Times; imposing personal political opinions unless they are grounded in my most careful and prayerful reading of Scripture; telling Reader’s Digest jokes unless I really, really need one to regain your flagging attention; or insulting your intelligence with “Take-Aways” you can get more painlessly from Oprah or Dr. Phil.

Winston Churchill said that a good speech should be like a woman’s skirt: short enough to keep your interest, long enough to cover…the topic. So, I like that thought: a mini-skirt sermon.

This story is probably apocryphal, but have you heard about the shortest novel in the English language?   Literary legend has it that Ernest Hemingway was sitting in a restaurant, or more probably a bar, with a bunch of fellow writers, and he bet them that he could write a complete novel in six words. When his friends had anted up, Mr. Hemingway wrote his story on a napkin: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never used.” Probably just a legend, but in six words, a whole poignant narrative unscrolls in your imagination. Most Sundays, I’ll need more than six words, but I’ll keep driving in that direction.

So first, concision. And second: Challenge. You remember how Reinhold Niebuhr put it: The purpose of the Christian pulpit is to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable. Look what Jesus does in his first sermon–his debut, his inaugural address, the first activity of his maturity–the first thing he does after passing his ordination exams. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release for the captives, sight to the blind, liberty for the oppressed, the acceptable year of the Lord.”

In other words: The lazy poor, the God-cursed blind, the convicted prisoner, the bankrupt debtor six months behind on his mortgage, the wretched woebegones rightfully banished to the far edge of polite society for their own inexplicable stupidities and annoying unsociability–I have come to preach the Good News of our Glad God to them, says Jesus, precisely to them.

And it’s all just too much for everybody. They’re so mad they try to lynch him. They heat the tar, break out the feathers, ride him out of town on a rail like that silly little Ku Klux Klan guy in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

That’s the Jesus we come here to meet every Sunday. Jesus’ hometown sermon is the place where he sets the agenda for his entire life and mission. This is where he condenses his vast intention to its distilled essence. Jesus means to show the world that he will not fence with a rubber-tipped foil, he will not box with padded gloves, he will not lob fat softballs at the congregation’s menacing bats, he will not blunt God’s piercing word for delicate ears.

One of the objectives of the Christian pulpit is to afflict the comfortable. I will not promise never to make you mad, but I will promise never to coddle you, and to bring you Jesus’ Gospel, which is sometimes bad news before it’s Good News.

A great preacher once said, “People are driven from the church not so much by stern truth that makes them uneasy as by weak nothings that make them contemptuous.”[3] Yes?

But a sermon which offers only concision and challenge is still wanting. A good sermon should offer up tender, loving pastoral care, because life is hard, and Jesus knew that, and he also said, “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” Good preachers should afflict the comfortable, but they must also comfort the afflicted.

Harry Emerson Fosdick was probably the greatest white preacher of twentieth-century America. Gardner Taylor and Martin Luther King, Jr., rivaled him in excellence among the black churches. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., built Riverside Church, that gigantic pile of gothic rocks in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights neighborhood, expressly for Dr. Fosdick. If that church were built today, it would cost well north of $100 million, and Mr. Rockefeller built it, in the teeth of the Depression, just so Harry Emerson Fosdick could preach to vast multitudes.

They opened the doors in 1930, so Dr. Fosdick held forth there during the fraught years of the Depression and then World War II, and he was–now get this–a pacifist. Sometimes he would pray for our German enemies in the middle of the war; he used to drive people crazy. He was also unflinching in his brave, pointed, scathing rebukes to racism and injustice and the shabby treatment of the poor. And still they kept coming. People would line up for blocks on Riverside Drive hours before the doors opened just so they could get a seat to hear Dr. Fosdick.

Before Mr. Rockefeller coaxed Dr. Fosdick over to Riverside Church, Dr. Fosdick was the senior minister at the First Presbyterian Church of New York at Fifth Avenue and Twelfth Street in Greenwich Village. If you’ve been to the First Presbyterian Church of New York, you know that it is also a sprawling pile of stone. The sanctuary is vast, and people filled it to hear Dr. Fosdick.

There are balconies above the floor pews, anchored to the side walls and running down the full length of the nave. The floor of the nave is marble, and if you walk down the center aisle of the nave, you will see that there is about a one-inch crack in the marble running down the length of the center aisle. Local legend has it that the marble cracked because vast hordes of congregants piled into the balcony until the excessive weight of all that humanity pulled the walls outward until the marble had to give. They came to hear Dr. Fosdick.

Why did they come? They came because he challenged them. He refused to give them weak nothings which made them contemptuous. But it was also evident from every sermon he preached that he loved them dearly and cared about their difficult lives in some of the hardest times of our land.

Dr. Fosdick’s congregations were vast, thousands and thousands of people, and he could never touch each of their lives individually, so he poured his energy into preaching sermons soaked in pastoral care. He would spend hours every week reading the latest psychology journals, and people felt his love for them in his words.

“Come to me,” he seemed to say, every time he mounted that pulpit. “Come to me, all ye who are complacent, and I will give you something to do in the sacred name of the Lord.” But also, “Come to me, all you who are harried, weak, and wan, and I will give you rest. I will give you the Glorious Good News of our Great God’s Glad Gospel.”

Everybody in America during his lifetime and after it thought of Harry Emerson Fosdick as a great preacher, but he thought of himself as a great pastor. He poured all his energy into pastoral care, and changed thousands of lives. I’m no Jesus and I’m no Fosdick, but I will try to love you all, one on one, and en masse every Sunday in this place, with the sacrament of words.

The Talking Head is almost dead. Preaching is almost as obsolete as the 8-track tape. And yet, isn’t it true? Every now and then during the proclamation of the Gospel here at 10:30 on Sunday morning, doesn’t God show up? Every now and then, here and there, isn’t someone moved to tears; someone overwhelmed by joy; someone convicted by faith, maybe for the first time; someone redeemed from brokenness; someone lost is found; someone planning betrayal or infidelity persuaded to be true instead?   Isn’t it true? Doesn’t it happen? Well, let’s try, together, you and I.

[1]Adapted from Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977), 22-23.

[2]Quoted by Garry Wills, “The Words That Remade America: Lincoln at Gettysburg,” The Atlantic, June, 1992, p. 74.

[3]George Buttrick, quoted by John Stott in Between Two Worlds (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1982), p. 299.