Tuesday, June 17, 2014

All That Is Necessary

Back in November of last year, I was given the opportunity to do a sermon as part of our weekly worship service.

We'd introduced the idea of lay-led worship earlier in the year, with a team of three coming up with a theme together, and then splitting up various other elements like hymn selection, prayer-writing and suchlike.  We were the second team to go, and Paul and Linda felt I was the best choice to do the sermon this time around, and honestly, I was kind of looking forward to it.

I've been asked to read and to be the service assistant on many occasions, but the opportunity to craft my own reflection and deliver it as part of a regular Sunday morning was titillating and daunting in equal measure.  I mean, like most mainline churches, our congregation is aging, which means that most of them have heard a lot of sermons, and they aren't about to let some Johnny-come-lately stand up and run his mouth all reckless-like.  Likewise though, it just wasn't in me to spout a bunch of platitudes and catchphrases either.

The three of us met a few times, often with Rev. James, to talk about the lectionary readings (sort of a scripture schedule) and to derive a theme.  The Old Testament reading was Micah 6:1-8, encompassing one of my favourite verses:

God Challenges Israel

Hear what the Lord says:
    Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
    and let the hills hear your voice.
Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
    and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
    and he will contend with Israel.
“O my people, what have I done to you?
    In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
    and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
    Aaron, and Miriam.
O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
    what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
    that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

What God Requires

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?
And our Gospel reading was the Beatitudes, from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12):

The Beatitudes

When Jesus[a] saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely[b] on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

As much as I love the highlighted bit from Micah, it is pretty familiar territory to most of the people who would be hearing it, and despite their inherent wisdom, the Beatitudes have been quoted nearly to the point of irrelevance.  It looked like I had my work cut out for me.

Thankfully, James' comprehensive knowledge of not only the scriptures but a bit of Greek etymology gave me a handle I could grab onto, and when I read my rough draft to Paul and Linda a couple of weeks later, they were pretty happy with it.  We usually have a non-scriptural reading as well, and we chose Dr. Kent Keith's "Paradoxical Commandments" for ours:

The Paradoxical Commandments
by Dr. Kent M. Keith

People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.

If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
Succeed anyway.

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.

The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.

People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
Fight for a few underdogs anyway.

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
Build anyway.

People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
Help people anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you'll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway.

© Copyright Kent M. Keith 1968, renewed 2001

I was fearful of crutching on my notes too much, so I decided to try speaking without them, and fell to memorizing instead.  After a number of false starts, I finally managed to get all the points I wanted without stumbling into the camera of my iPad in under 16 minutes.  I'll never remember all that in front of a crowd, I thought, and abandoned the idea.

The following morning, I picked it up again, trying to run through the speech from memory on my way to work.

The Thursday before the sermon, I printed out my notes.

Saturday I went back to memorizing.

When I woke up Sunday morning, I knew I would have to use the notes.

By the time I got to church at 9:15, I knew I couldn't.

But I kept them in the pocket of my sport coat just the same.

When the time came, I decided to go for it, partly because hey, they'd already gone to the trouble of hooking me up with a wireless mike, so it would be rude not to use it, right?  I stepped in front of the lectern, took a deep breath and let fly.

I tried to be conscious of my body language, because I know that my 'expansive open-armed gesture' followed closely by lightly clasping my hands together in front of me, when repeated, gives the impression of nothing quite so much as an oversized bird (perhaps a penguin) working up the nerve to attempt flight.  I did my best not to strain my neck to escape from the constraints of the turtleneck I was wearing, because if no one else noticed, I knew Audrey would, and if I made eye contact after doing so, well, that would be all she wrote.

My tone was fairly steady, and I think I did a good job of keeping up eye contact with the people who were to the side and behind me, in the choir loft.  The low point came when I tried to swallow near the end, and my mouth was so dry, I made an audible gulp that I think you can even hear on the recording.

When I finished though, and said "Amen," there were a lot of echoed amens murmured from the crown, which showed me thy had at least been paying attention and not started catching up on their twitter feeds or reading the newsletter.  And as I returned to sit with my team, I could hear quite a bit of low conversation that suggested that a portion of what I had said had made some sort of impression.

Following the service, during the postlude, the three of us went and stood by the doors so we could shake hands with everyone as they left, and the response was overwhelmingly positive.  A few people even told me I had missed my calling, which I found very flattering, but told them I didn't want to lose my amateur status.

Besides, this was one sermon, one! that had taken me weeks to put together, within a service that took three people even longer.  Ministers like James do it every week (also speaking without notes, but from full text, not an outline like I used!), and their response is typically either 'Nice message,' or nothing at all; there's no way I could work in that sort of vacuum.

At any rate, it was a privilege to have been able to deliver a sermon, and a relief that it was so graciously received.  Who knows, a few years down the road, I might even be ready to do another one.

If you want to hear it, they record the services for those unable to attend in person, and were kind enough to give me an mp3 of my sermon.  I recognize that very few of the ten of readers of this blog have religious inclinations, but hey, you read this far.  There is an embedded audio player and a link to the mp3 itself so you can listen to it on the player of your choice while commuting or mowing the lawn or what have you.  I promise there is no proselytizing in it, just an appeal for humility and justice that, when I stop to think about it, are probably the two most important tenets of my faith, just like Micah said.

Sermon: All That Is Necessary"

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