It’s (not) only words

Sermon for 27 July ’08


Sometimes, in the Walton household, an exasperated parent may be heard say to one of his offspring, “Did you hear me?” To which question the answer is always, “Yes, I heard you.” And this unnamed parent says, “Well, answer me then.”

Have you noticed that when a word is spoken, it usually requires a response? That’s what’s happening in our services of worship: a word is spoken, the Word is spoken, and a response is made. I’m reminded of the Book of James, which says:

Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. (ch. 1.22)

The Word of God is living and creating; it forms us as disciples of Jesus. So, if we truly hear the Word of God as the Scriptures are read and preached, we will encounter the living God. We will become doers of the Word.

Worship is an encounter with God. In any encounter, two things happen: we begin a two-way process of communication; and we are changed.

Any encounter is a two-way thing. The encounter of worship is just the same. In some parts, God speaks to us; in others, we speak to God; in yet others, we speak to one another.

We’ve seen that already in the Gathering: we lift our voices in prayer and song to God, in adoration and confession.

God speaks to us in the assurance of forgiveness: “Your sins are forgiven.” God speaks to us in the greeting of peace: “The peace of the Lord be always with you.”

Yet we also speak to one another in just the same words, as we pass the peace of Christ himself one to another.

And then we come to the second part of our service of worship, the Service of the Word. Here, of course, God speaks to us. The Scriptures are read and a sermon is preached. The Spirit speaks to our spirits.

But even here, it’s a two-way process. When God speaks, we must respond. When we say the Creed or another statement of faith, we respond as God’s believing people. When we pray, we respond as God’s praying people. When we read the announcements, we respond as God’s active people. When people share what God has done, we respond as God’s obedient people. When we bring our offering, we offer ourselves to God, body, soul and spirit.

When the Spirit speaks to us, we are encountered by the living God. In any personal encounter, we are changed. I have sometimes reflected that I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I hadn’t married Karen. (Just so you know who to blame!)

An encounter with God is meant to be life-changing. In fact, if the encounter is with the God who made all things and who is redeeming all things, then it can only be a life-changing encounter.

When God speaks, things happen. Creation is formed out of chaos; life appears in the midst of death; forgiveness is found where there was only separation.

With that in mind, let’s do something we haven’t done for the past couple of weeks: let’s look at one of the readings.

Jesus spoke in parables. From that one fact, we should realise this one thing: we can’t speak directly of God. God is above us and beyond us; God is within us and closer to us than breathing; God is more than we can ever comprehend.

Jesus spoke of the coming kingdom of God, when God’s reign would be clear-cut. When no one could doubt that the earth is the Lord’s.

He didn’t give us a theological treatise. But note this: neither did he spell it out in words of one syllable. He didn’t make it simple; no, he told stories. Stories that open the eyes of our hearts to the wonder of God. Stories that offer us a new vision of life and our part in it.

He said the kingdom’s like a man whose business is collecting fine pearls. He finds a piece of such great value that he sells everything he has to get it. It’s like a woman using yeast to bake bread. But this baker is mixing enough to feed a small army.

It’s like a mustard seed. A small seed, a weed and therefore unclean, which the farmer was therefore planting against the law—a seed which grows into a bush big enough to give shelter to a mob of annoying birds.

Jesus is trying to get us to live in a larger world. The world we live in is small: God has been banished. Politicians don’t ‘do God’. If a celebrity has faith, it’s hidden from us. The Simpsons is one of the few TV shows in which the central characters go to church. (I’d like to go to their church sometime!) Economic realities are the only god that many have. Our society has settled for ‘lifestyle’ without the living God.

But God can’t be silenced: God has spoken the eternal Word, Jesus Christ, and that Word can never be unspoken. And if we hear this Word, we must make a response.

This God, this Word, scares us. We want more certainty than that. In the 1990s, I was taken aside by a matriarch of the church and told that I wasn’t doing enough ‘denouncing’ from the pulpit. She wanted me to denounce homosexuality.

She wanted ‘denouncing’ to be the word spoken from the pulpit, so that (I presume) a righteous indignation might be the response. I told her the pulpit was for good news, not for denouncing. I think today I’d say it a bit differently: the pulpit is for a new vision of God and God’s grace in our lives. Problem is, sometimes that grace feels like a judgement, it feels painful, because God is touching a sore spot. It’s like when a nurse put antiseptic onto a wound. It may hurt, but it’s needed. Whenever God touches us, it’s grace—even if it hurts.

Today, I might touch part of this lady’s life that she wouldn’t want touching—that is, her need to denounce something that she had no inclination towards whatsoever. What’s that about? How does that fit with the coming kingdom of God that is at the centre of the message of Jesus? How does it fit with the parable towards the end of today’s reading, where the net is cast into the sea and catches fish of every kind? The fish are sorted out at the end of the age, not now.

I don’t know about you, but I still have some bits of me that stink like pretty bad fish. And those parts of me are also addressed by God’s Word, and need to respond. I can’t pretend they don’t exist, or exclude them from God’s gracious-yet-painful touch. We can’t decide in advance what God will say to us. When we are in Christ, we can know that it will be a gracious word—but it may be in the form of a judgement.

God’s Word goes out, and it demands a response from us. It comforts the afflicted, and afflicts the comfortable. Our response should never be ‘We’ve got you nailed, God, we understand you’; but rather, ‘We stand under you, God, and
‘we believe—

‘we pray—

‘we offer ourselves to you, O God.’

And we start right here and right now in the liturgy.

1 Comment

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One response to “It’s (not) only words

  1. stupidevil

    On the parables referred to in your post, Katharine Jefferts Schori writes: “Jesus’ parables this morning are so familiar that we’ve lost the sense of surprise and shock that their first hearers would have had. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a small seed that grows large and shelters the birds. The Early Christians would have heard that speaking about the Gentiles. This place and its work also shelter the unlikely and unnoticed, and sometimes despised outsider.

    The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast that leavens everything around it. That would have been intensely shocking to Jesus’ hearers, for it compares God’s presence to something unclean that contaminates everything it touches. The Kingdom of Heaven is like finding something unexpected in a field and selling all you have in order to buy it. The Kingdom of Heaven is like searching the earth for a great treasure and then giving all you have in order to own it. We can find that valuable thing accidentally, or by diligent searching, but it will take all we have to possess it.

    And finally, Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is like a net full of fish. At the end of time, those fish will be sorted into useful ones, and trash fish. But not until then. And the strong suggestion is that even if some smell better than others, it’s not given to us to know which is which, and until the end of things, we might better cultivate a perception that sees pearls of great price in all of the oysters around us”

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