Well, so much for posting the written text of yesterday's sermon. I had good intentions but just could not get a written draft down on paper before it was time to preach. While I knew that there was a sermon waiting to be born it would not arrive in time to line out before the congregation gathered. In the end it felt as though this was how things were intended. The sermon felt fresh, engaged, connected. And, like manna, it is now gone. No written record. No video. No notes. Just the memory, for now, until it seems forgotten. It leaves me wondering about the impact, over time, of such preaching events in the life and mind of the congregation. There are two things that I do want to remember from yesterday, so I'll post them here.
The first is a quote that I came across during the week. I found it in a book called "Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? A Narrative Approach to the Problem of Pauline Christianity" by Daniel Kirk. The book intrigues me since I regularly run across colleagues and parishioners who seem to imagine that Paul is mostly a problem rather than a gift for Christianity. While I haven't finished the book I like what I have read so far. I don't think that the church or the gospel is helped when a false dichotomy is posited between Jesus and Paul. But the reason to mention this book here is the quote that I found as the introduction to the tenth chapter "Living Interpretations". It is from one of my favorite authors, Flannery O'Connor, and it helped to locate yesterday's sermon (and the text that it hosted) within the larger narrative of Mark's gospel and of the New Testament:
"A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is." (from "Mystery and Manners", p. 96)
I notice that so often the gospel is turned into an idea or an ideology - be it "love" or "inclusion" or "justice" or "peace" or "forgiveness" - when it is a truth that can only be told and known and lived as a story with a plot and characters and a beginning and an ending. The great temptation when preaching on a passage of scripture is to move to the idea that the passage seems to most closely resemble. The great challenge when preaching is to continually locate a text and our lives within the often complex narrative of the story that is the gospel. It means that sermons may not feel as satisfying because they do not simply reiterate an idea that we all agree is good. It means that sermons are more often open-ended as they invite the congregation into the story that is bigger than any given text or sermon. Opting to preach four Sundays in a row from Mark is one way to remind the preacher and the congregation that each sermon rightly concludes "to be continued".
The second thing that I want to remember from yesterday's sermon is the resonance that I experienced when inviting the congregation to imagine dropping the name "University Hill" in favour of the name "Ephphatha United Church". The first time I mentioned it there was appropriate laughter at the thought. But as we worked our way through the text and heard Jesus' surprising healing word: "Ephphatha" we began to long to be named in this way. Ephphatha is the Aramaic word that Jesus says when healing a man who is deaf and has a speech impediment. It is not the word "hear" or "heal". It is the word "open". The man is blocked. He cannot hear and so his speech is garbled. The text (both here and following) is clear in its insinuation that the man is Jesus' disciples, he is the church, he is us. We cannot hear the gospel. There is blockage. We are closed from God and so our speaking makes no sense. As I wondered aloud about the various causes for this blockage - the hurts, the fears, the ways we are possessed - I saw recognition in the eyes of the congregation, I heard a silencing that is the sign of people paying close attention, saying "yes, preacher, that's the truth". I want to remember that moment. It is this blockage that Jesus intends to break, to overcome, to open. The story of that overcoming and opening is what lies ahead in the weeks to come. It is rather reassuring to discover that the disciples - as Mark portrays them - are block headed. Apparently this is the stuff that the church is made of. And apparently the good news is not overcome when the church is blocked. Wow.