Sermon Lectionary 13B 2018
By Pastor Leo E. Longan
If you’ve been listening to sermons for a while, you certainly will have noticed the way preachers try to get your attention by opening with some sort of gimmick: we wear something, we wield something, we say something surprising, something that has, on the face of it, nothing whatever to do with the subject at hand. Early on in my ministry, I learned the value of using words like dogfood or Jersey Turnpike or Harry Potter to grab attention, and then hope to edge sideways into the real message of the sermon. Let’s face it: normal sermon vocabulary – grace, love, sin, repentance, salvation (all beautiful and holy words in themselves) – often prove to be soporific (a great word meaning sleep-inducing) if they aren’t served with plenty of pepper. “Grace and peace to you…zzzz…”
I’ve seen lots of heroic efforts along these lines down the years: there was the pastor who hauled a rowboat into the sanctuary and sat in while he preached. There was the man who wore an enormous orange cowboy hat in the pulpit. There was the deacon who began his sermon by starting up a chainsaw (That got our attention!). Usually though, the end result is that, while we remember the boat, the hat, and the saw, even a day later we can’t remember what the message was. Jesus was much better at this than any of us are: Jesus got people’s attention by healing the sick and feeding the multitudes. But he still had the same problem we do: people followed him for the free lunch and free healthcare, and still mostly didn’t understand and couldn’t remember what he preached to them.
This is on my mind this morning, because of the memorable gimmick a guest preacher used for this lesson about the healing of Jairus’ daughter, at Trinity on 100th Street, in the days long ago when I was the organist there. As a performance, it was appalling; but as a sermon, it touched at least one life very directly.
The guest preacher was actually auditioning to become our next pastor. She had heard that there were lots of theatre people in the parish – I was one of them – and so she decided to play it our way, as she thought. That Sunday, she asked us to sing the sermon hymn before the sermon, and when we finished it and sat down to listen to her, we understood why.
She had used to time to change her outfit. Instead of the usual alb and stole we all wear, she now had on a big, shapeless moumou and a long, virgin-Mary veil. She looked like something out of a Christmas pageant. We were immediately frightened. Sure enough, it was a costume she had chosen for the sermon that she gave, in character, as Jairus’ wife, the mother of the little girl in the story whom Jesus heals. She spoke at length about her feelings, her sorrow as she watched her daughter get sick and die, and at this distance of time (this was 30 years ago) I can’t remember how she handled Jesus bringing her back to life.
The theatre people were all very embarrassed for her (as an actress she truly had no idea what she was doing) and so for us the whole thing fell immediately and hopelessly flat; some in the congregation just didn’t get it at all.
But here’s the thing: greeting the pastor at the door after the service, the oldest of the lovely German ladies in the church, Mrs. Schneider, was overheard to say to her, “I vas so sorry to hear about your daughter.”
Now Mrs. Schneider, who was about the sweetest church lady you could ever hope to meet, had one great sorrow in her life: she had lost her only son many years earlier. She never really got over his loss; every vase of flowers she put on the altar, every donation she made to the organ fund, was given in memory of her son Richard. No doubt she was thinking of him when she reached up and pulled my face down to hers at my ordination in 1990 and kissed me, saying, “A kiss from your mother.” (God bless her; she’s been gone many years now).
But here’s my point: when the preacher spoke in character as a grieving mother, even though she didn’t understand the gimmick Mrs. Schneider’s heart was touched, her compassion was cued, her empathy was awakened. She opened her heart in sympathy and love to the stranger standing before her in church that day, and as she went out offered her a blessing.
So, praise the Lord, that day, lame as it was, the gimmick worked; that day the preacher accomplished – if only for one old lady – the task that is before us preachers every time we get up to do this (I promise you) very challenging thing of proclaiming the gospel of Christ. It worked: somehow she made love happen.
And the reason it worked was because Mrs. Schneider brought her heart with her that day, listened with her heart, listened to her heart. She took a blessing home from that service, something that, I dare say, most of the rest of us in our smug, critical sophistication did not do.
Here’s what I take away from this, thinking about it thirty years later: perhaps if we bring our hearts to church with us, and listen with our hearts, and listen to our hearts, the blessing God has prepared for us will find us, and, perhaps in spite of ourselves, we will go out just a little bit healed, and ready to offer a blessing, even a small one, to another hungry heart.
May God in his goodness and mercy make it so.
Let us pray.