A VIEW FROM THE BACK PEW
Rev. Canon Christopher B. J. Pratt
When Jesus asked that question of those who gathered around him (Matthew 11:7), the reflection he offered centered around the ministry of John the Baptist.
John offered a prophetic ministry calling people to enter into the experience of repentance and a new relationship with God.
John did not hesitate to challenge the people who came to listen to him. His ministry had as its focus the act of baptism which was offered as an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual reality of washing away of sin.
He also spoke to those who occupied positions of power in the religious institution of his time with a God – given spiritual authority. He told them that they could not hide behind any claim of inheritance as assurance of their relationship with God, but rather, by confessing their sins, and through the act of baptism begin life anew with an awareness of God’s love and forgiveness.
“What did you go out into the wilderness to see?”
St. George’s Chapel, within the precinct of Windsor Castle is not the wilderness. Yet in that setting, the sermon offered during the recent Royal Wedding offered many challenges to a world-wide audience. Bishop Curry’s sermon was not spiritual pablum, fed to a congregation eager to move to the Wedding Lunch and evening party. The Bishop had a message meant not only for the bride and groom, but for all who were listening in every corner of this global village. In the words of one commentator, “Not only did he take nearly three times his allotted five minutes, but you would never hear this sort of thing from your average C of E cleric in a month of Windsor Sundays”. (Daily Mail, May 20, 2018). My question is, simply, “Why not? “
As the cameras panned across the faces of his listeners, royal and commoners alike, the style of the preacher may have caused a few smiles in St George’s Chapel, but the energy of his message certainly left a profound impression. To make the link between the power of love and the transformation of the world when humanity learned how to harness the power of fire was a message which was accessible to everyone.
The ministry of a preacher, at any time and in any liturgical experience, is to provide food for the spiritual journey of their listener. Preaching is an experience which draws together all those who are engaged in worship. There are those who take their responsibility as listeners seriously. Then there are those who do not. I recall a number of Sundays, where one of the members of the congregation I served as rector, (I hasten to add, not during my years of ministry in the Diocese of Huron!), invariably sat, with his arm resting on the back of his pew, with his wristwatch clearly visible. He saw it as his personal mission, as he shook my hand, at the end of the service, to let me know how long the sermon had been!
Sermons are intended to educate, motivate and equip the saints for the work and ministry of the church. The preacher draws on a wealth of resources to offer a message with a purpose. At the ordination of a bishop, the question is asked, “Will you boldly proclaim and interpret the Gospel of Christ, enlightening the minds and stirring up the conscience of your people?” The response to that question is, “I will, in the power of the Spirit.” (BAS pg. 637) That same framework and expectation has an application attached to every sermon, offered by any preacher, as that ministry is being offered at a gathering of a faith community.
For those whose expectation of a sermon is linked with the hope that feathers will not be ruffled and calm will be the emotional result of the preacher’s efforts, I refer you, once again, to the message of the Presiding Bishop. Bishop Curry looked to Charles Marsh, a religious studies professor at the University of Virginia, whose book, “The Beloved Community”, contained this thought: “ Jesus began the most revolutionary movement in human history, a movement built on the unconditional love of God for the world and the mandate to live that love.”
Boldly proclaiming the Gospel of Christ, interpreting the Gospel of Christ for our time and in our context, enlightening the minds of those who are attentive and open to the power and presence of God’s Spirit in the moment, are all essential elements of the experience of a sermon.
When next you have the opportunity to hear a sermon, listen well as God’s calls you to a life of ministry and service. Be attentive to God’s call as you live out your love for your Lord and touch the lives of others by a faithful witness of discipleship. Be prepared to be open to how God’s Spirit moving through your words and actions will enable you to share in the revolutionary experience which is the Christian faith alive in God’s world.
Rev. Canon Christopher B. J. Pratt has retired from full time parish ministry, but continues to offer priestly ministry in the Diocese of Huron.
Featured photo: Stephen Radford, Unsplash