Preaching. It’s what I do.
I do a lot of other stuff, of course, but the thing I enjoy the most about my life as a priest is the crafting and delivery of sermons. A pretty close second is the design and execution of liturgy in praise of God, but sermons rate slightly higher.
Truth be told, for a “high church” liturgical Christian such as I there is very little difference between the two. In my (admittedly not-so-humble) opinion, a homily can’t really be divorced from the worship service in which it is preached. I print my sermons and publish them on a blog, but read on paper or on a computer screen, separated from the proclamation of the lessons on which they are based, unaccompanied by the prayers of the people to whom they are spoken, unadorned by the hymns chosen to underscore their themes, the text is not the same as the homily preached.
Still, the actual word-smithing, the fine tuning, the editing (over and over and over), finding just the right way to say the thing I want to say . . . then saying it. Making the word of God come alive, I hope, for the congregation to whom the sermon is preached. This is what I was called to do!
And, yet, today it occurs to me for all of that nearly every sermon I have ever preached boils down to the same thing. It’s encapsulated in the bumper-sticker summary of Jesus’ summary of the Law that the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio sells: “Love God. Love your neighbor.” And, to tell the truth once again, it often feels that the religion part, especially these days, is not all that necessary.
Responding to a friend’s Facebook posting today, I said that it seems a lot of folks in America today fail to understand or to take an interest in the public weal; they seem to have no idea that what it means to be a decent citizen of a civil society. That’s when I realized that nearly every sermon of late feels like nothing more than an exhortation to be a good person. It doesn’t take religion to do that.
My calling, however, is to (to repeat what I said above) make the word of God come alive! It’s not simply to make good people; it’s to inspire, enable, and empower disciples to go out into the world … and make more disciples. That does take religion; it takes the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
My job, our job as clergy, fellow presbyters, deacons, and other preachers, is to know Jesus and make him known. Either our witness to societal good is grounded in the Gospel or it’s nothing more than self-help and politics. Our job is to articulate that, for the Christian believer, love of neighbor (and all that implies) is enlivened by love of God. What we do in the world flows from what we do at the altar; good works with our neighbors are grounded in our gratitude to God.
This is why it’s not enough for a preacher simply to encourage goodness, kindness, and generosity. Any politician could do that (although my experience jaundiced observation is that few do). This is why it’s not enough to a preacher merely to enjoin mindfulness, maturity, and self-improvement. Those are the stock-in-trade of psychologists and self-help gurus. A preacher must introduce her audience to Jesus, crucified and risen, and in her preaching encourage the Christian to work at and sustain that relationship. It is from that relationship that the believer’s goodness, mindfulness, generosity, public service, and all the rest arises.
That’s why preaching is (in my tradition) not a stand-alone piece. The homily is part and parcel to the worship; it informs and is informed by the liturgy, the music, and the prayers of the gathered community.
It really is the best part of my job!
A reflection offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio. Fr. Funston was not preaching during August and September, 2017, while recuperating from total knee replacement surgery and, from to time, offered reflections in place of sermons. This meditation was originally offered as a Facebook status.