Sermon Text

June 1, 2008 11:15 AM • Pentecost III

Sermon

The Rev. Dr. Thomas G. Long

The Rev. Dr. Thomas G. Long

The Rev. Dr. Thomas G. Long

You have very graciously invited me to this beautiful cathedral this morning to preach a sermon. Now a sermon, as we all know, is made out of words and I brought some words with me this morning, but even though sermons are crafted out of words, I think it is important for us remember that in every sermon there are two powerful moments of silence. The first of these comes at the very beginning of the sermon. You may have not have noticed it; it was brief and fleeting but it was there. The scripture lesson is read. The congregation sinks back into their seats. The preacher takes a deep and anxious breath and there it is.

It’s so routine we hardly even notice a silence, but down at its depth it is an electric silence full of anticipation and expectation. What’s going on in it? I think the African American church has it right when it says in that moment of silence for everyone, for preacher, for choir, for congregation, there is the wonder: is there a word from the Lord? Amidst all the words of our culture that besiege us, is there a word that can make a difference? A word from beyond that can touch us and heal us? Is there a word from the Lord? It’s in that silence.

I love the way that novelist and essayist Frederick Buechner has described this moment of silence. He writes this: “The preacher climbs the steps to the pulpit with his sermon in his hand. He hikes up his black robe at the knee so he will not trip over it on the way up the steps. He feels as if he has swallowed an anchor. The preacher deals out his sermon note cards like a riverboat gambler; the stakes have never been higher. Two minutes from now he may have lost his listeners completely but the silence in the church is deafening because everybody is listening to it. Everybody is listening, even the preacher.”

The theologian Karl Barth also talked about this moment of silence at the beginning of a sermon when he said, “When the bells in the church ring and the congregation gathers, we do not come to hear about the cherry tree or the symphony or everyday life. In fact, our gathering is a sign that cherry tree and symphony and everyday life are possibilities somehow already exhausted. What hangs in the air is one question—is it true that God is present? Is it true that there is a word from the Lord today?”

Now I know, I know we preachers often squander the promise of that moment of silence two sentences into the sermon, and the air of expectation has been let out of the room. I think of Terry Waite. You remember Terry Waite, who was assigned by the archbishop of Canterbury as an envoy to Beirut to work out negotiations to release the hostages, but it went badly. He became a hostage himself and for four years he was in a tiny cell in a Beirut prison, cut off from everything he loved. Cut off from church, from family, from civilization, from country, isolated and alone.

Over the years, though, he developed a sense of trust with those who were guarding him to the point that one of them did something very risky. He slipped into Terry Waite’s cell a transistor radio. For the first time, Terry Waite would have contact with the outside world. It had one precious battery and so he waited until Sunday to turn it on. He tuned in the BBC to get a worship service, hungry for a word from the Lord, hungry for gospel, for comfort. Imagine how he felt when he heard the preacher begin, “My theme for this morning is spiritual lessons from Winnie-the-Pooh.”

I think also of one of my students who was invited to preach the sermon at a worship service at the nursing home where she was serving as a student chaplain. This nursing home had worship in the big lobby of the nursing home and when she stood up to preach it was crowded with elderly people—some with oxygen tanks, some in wheelchairs. One of the gifts that God gives to people of great age is the freedom to say and do exactly what they want and so she got a paragraph into the sermon when suddenly one of the elderly women listening pulled the joystick on her electric wheelchair, turned it around, went back down the hall to her room, shouting, “Blah, blah, blah!”

We preachers can squander that promise of the first silence, but it’s amazing to me—even congregations who have been numbed into submission decade after decade, they come back the next Sunday and it’s there. The silence of expectation—maybe this time, maybe this time.

But there is a second moment of silence in preaching. If the first one comes at the beginning of the sermon, the second one comes at the end of the sermon. It is much rarer. In fact, some people wonder if they have ever experienced this moment of silence at all. If the first moment of silence in preaching is the wondering—is there a word from the Lord? The second moment of silence in preaching comes when the Holy Spirit has taken the fragile human words of the preacher and turned them into word of God.

When a word penetrates that separates life from death, wisdom from foolishness, blessing from curse and our lives are touched and transformed, when that happens, you can’t simply pick up the hymnal and go casually into the next hymn. Matthew wants us to know that this is the kind of silence that occurred at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. What Matthew says is, “When Jesus had finished speaking all these words, the crowd who heard him were astonished.”

The word in Greek is even stronger; it’s more like dumbstruck, flabbergasted, speechless. And Matthew wants us to know this is not the only time this happened in the preaching ministry of Jesus. It happened all the way through. It happened at the end of his ministry when he preached to the crowds in Jerusalem. They were dumbstruck by his words. It happened in the middle of his ministry when he was preaching to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. They were flabbergasted at his wisdom. And it happens here at the beginning of his ministry when he preaches the Sermon on the Mount. They were left astonished and silent.

And Matthew tells us the reason that they were, is that Jesus did not preach like other preachers. He did not preach like the scribes. He preached with authority. And it created a crisis. If the first moment of silence is a wondering—is there a word from the Lord?—the second moment of silence is when there is a word from the Lord and it turns the world over and creates a crisis.

Several years ago in a church on Sunday morning in Charlotte, North Carolina, it came time for the sermon. The preacher was just about to open his mouth and begin when suddenly a man in the balcony—a stranger, a man nobody knew—stood up and said in a loud clear voice, “I have a word from the Lord.” Heads swiveled around. Whatever this word from the Lord was, no one ever got to hear it because two bouncers disguised as ushers bounded like gazelles up the balcony stairway and muscled this guy out of the sanctuary and into the street.

Now, I don’t blame them. I understand. The apostle Paul said you ought to do things decently and in order. This was out of order. Who knew what this guy had in mind. I don’t blame them. But it does cause me to wonder a little bit. Because I am a preacher and almost every week I am standing in a pulpit like this saying in effect, “I have a word from the Lord.” And no one has ever muscled me out of the church. I wonder if it’s because in the stained glass and the robe and the liturgy and the way I preach, it gets domesticated and tamed. Jesus did not preach like that. He did not preach like the scribes or the Presbyterians or the Episcopalians. He preached, says Matthew, as one with authority which means that his word generated a crisis. What do we do now? How do we live? Who shall we be? That’s the second silence.

Now if we listen to the end of the Sermon on the Mount we might not like it, because Jesus does not come across as the cuddly warm inclusive Jesus we have learned to love. He says instead at the end of the sermon, “Not everybody who says Lord, Lord will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who hear these words and do them, only those who build their lives around them. There will be a lot of people who will say Lord, look at me. I did wonderful things in your name. I was a very powerful person in terms of communicating what you wanted us to communicate. Look at me, Lord. And I will say to you, I don’t recognize you. I recognize only those who have built their lives around the words that I have given, who have built their lives on solid rock. If you build it on sand, the winds will come and the storms will blow, and blow you away.”

These are words of judgment. I don’t want to take the sting out of them, but I don’t want us to misunderstand them either, because in the gospel the judgment of God is a good thing. One day I was walking across the campus and one of my students hailed me and said, “Dr. Long, could I speak to you for a minute?” I said, “I’m going to get a cup of coffee, you want to go?” She did, and as we were sharing coffee, she told me what was on her mind. She said that she was serving as a field education student in a local church and that her supervising pastor was requiring her to preach next Sunday. I said, “Good.”

She said, “No. It is not good. He’s making me preach on the lectionary.”

I said, “Good.”

She said, “It’s not good. Have you read the lectionary text for week? They’re all about judgment. I don’t believe in judgment. I believe in grace. I believe in mercy. I believe…it took me three years of therapy to get over judgment. I am not going to preach judgment.”

We talked about it for a while and then we moved on to other things, and she started to tell me about her family life. She and her husband have several children, only the youngest of whom—a teenage boy—was at home and he was giving them hell. He was into drugs, maybe dealing them, in trouble with the police. She said, “Like last night we were sitting at supper, we had no idea where our son was. In the middle of supper, he comes in the back door and I said would you like some supper and he practically spit at us. He just stomped down the hall to his room and slammed the door.” She said, “My husband got up and turned on ESPN. That is always his response to this.” She said, “I don’t know, something got into me.” She said, “I’m afraid of my son physically. Physically afraid of my own son. But something got into me and I got up from the table and I went down to his room and I pushed open the door and I said to him, ‘You listen to me. I love you so much I am not going to put up with this.’”

I said, Caroline, I think you just preached a sermon on judgment. God loves us so much God will not put up with the foolishness in our lives. We have foolishly hungered for success and power and status, and God says through Jesus, that’s foolish. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice. That’s what makes life free and good. We have been those who have foolishly trusted in military might and made war on others and Jesus says that’s foolish. I love you so much I’m not going to put up with that. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the peacemakers.

As one theologian put it, do not fear the wrath of God. Fear the love of God, for the love of God will strip away everything that stands between us and God. To misunderstand the Sermon on the Mount as a series of rules is the same thing we do to the Ten Commandments. We think of the Ten Commandments as ten things we’d really like to do but God doesn’t want us to, so to please God let’s don’t. But we miss the way the commandments begin—I am the Lord your God, I brought you out of slavery into the land of freedom and this is the shape of freedom. You are so free you don’t even have to have any other gods. You have been given so much you are free not to covet what is your neighbor’s. You are free to have the Sabbath day and to keep it holy. It’s not a list of rules; it’s the shape of freedom.

I’ll tell you who I recognize, said Jesus. Those who build their lives on the shape of freedom.

When my wife and I moved to Atlanta eight years ago, we shopped around for a church. We finally decided that we would join Central Presbyterian Church in downtown Atlanta. We liked the worship, we liked their mission, we decided to join. The minister invited us and all the others who were joining during that particular season to come and meet with the church officers on Wednesday night and have dinner. So we did.

We were in the fellowship hall around a square table and when dinner was done, the pastor said, I would like to go around the table and each person joining the church say why you are joining this church. Well, we did and you heard the kind of things that you would expect. One person said, I’m a musician; this church has the finest music program in the city and therefore I’m joining. Another one said, I’ve got two teenage daughters and the youth program is fantastic here and that’s why we’re joining. Another person said, I didn’t like the minister in the church I belong to and I like the minister here fine, I’m going to join. And then it got around to Marshall. His story was he was high on crack cocaine in the streets, stumbled into the outreach center and begged to be helped. The director said, I’m out of money. I can’t get you in a treatment program this month. I can do it next month, but you will stay with us, we will stay with you. She took his hand, they knelt on the carpet of her office and they prayed and he stayed. And he said I’ve been sober for three years now and the reason I’m joining this church is that God saved me in this church.

The rest of us looked at each other sheepishly. We were there for the music and the parking; he’s there for the salvation.

A few weeks later there was a little squib in our church newsletter that said that Marshall was now an inmate in the DeKalb County jail. We had joined church together. We were brothers in Christ. I went to see him. After three metal detectors, I found myself on the opposite side of a thick plate-glass window holding a telephone looking at Marshall in the orange jumpsuit of a DeKalb County prisoner holding the other phone.

I said, Marshall, how are you? By the grace of God, he said, I’m doing all right.

What happened?

I was in the outreach center, he said, counseling people, people like myself off the street, telling them that they could do right. I realized I hadn’t done right myself. I had a warrant for my arrest in DeKalb County. It was an old warrant, years old, it would never have caught up with me but I knew about it and so on Christmas Eve, I turned myself in. I’ll be out by Easter. I cannot wait to worship on Easter. But in the meantime, I’ve got an outreach center going here in the jail. A lot of these people can’t read or write and so I write letters to their sweethearts and wives telling them that they miss them and love them, and every night we have a prayer meeting in my cell, not many come, but we pray for the other prisoners and the guards.

And I looked through the plate-glass at my brother in Christ, Marshall, in the jumpsuit of a DeKalb County prisoner and I saw one of the freest human beings in the world who was building his life not on sand, but on the rock of the gospel and I wish that I had remembered Marshall when I had my own run-in with the law a few months ago.

What happened was, I was driving and I tried to make a quick change of lane, the traffic stopped suddenly, and I found myself basically sideways. The head of my car in one lane, the tail in the other. I looked in the rearview mirror. There was a police car behind me with the lights on and he ticketed me for impeding the flow of traffic. When you are a young man, you get a ticket for speeding in a convertible; when you are my age, you get tickets for being in the way. I was going to pay the fine, but curiosity got the best of me. I went to the library and looked up the law on impeding the flow of traffic and I decided that I was innocent.

Technically speaking I did not impede the flow of traffic and I wanted my day in court. I’m a university professor, so I went over to the law school and I did research. I did legal LexisNexis and by the time my court day came, I had a file folder two inches thick with documents proving that I am innocent. I was a typical jailhouse lawyer with a fool for a client.

The judge came in, we all rose, and then the judge said, “Would Thomas Long please approach the bench.” I picked up my two-inch-thick file folder and I marched up to the bench. The judge leaned over and said, “The police officer who arrested you is no longer employed by DeKalb County. There is no one here to bear witness against you. Your case is dismissed. You’re free to go.”

And there was something in me that almost said, how dare you dismiss my case! I’ve go two inches of material here that proves I’m right. I would rather be right than free!

One day we will all stand before the judge, the Lord of all mercy and grace, and the judge will lean over and say, I don’t care what’s in your file folder; the accuser is no longer employed around here. There is no one here to bear witness against you.

But I’m right!

I don’t recognize that. You’re free and if you had listened to the Sermon on the Mount, you could have spent your whole life living in freedom.

And I think I will be astonished and silent.