Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Sermon I Did Not Preach

I prepared two sermons for last Sunday. One of them I never gave.

In our parish, as in many parishes across Canada, we celebrate Harvest Thanksgiving on the Sunday before National Thanksgiving. Given the events of the previous week and the turmoil created by the financial crisis, I felt very strongly moved to offer a sermon that would challenge those who, even in the midst of such crisis, still have so much more than many in the world.

However, after writing the sermon I found myself filled with considerable anger. Indeed, the process of writing brought that anger to light. I then found myself questioning my motives in writing such a sermon. Whence came my anger? I had hoped that it was righteous anger but was worried that it might be something else. I spoke with others close to me about the sermon and tried to sort out my motives and goals. I argued that, in the words of that great scholar and preacher, Walter Brueggemann, a preacher must always "bring a word from somewhere else." I had hoped the sermon would challenge those with wealth to reconsider the so-called financial catastrophe that the West was now facing. I had hoped to preach something prophetic. I slowly came to wonder if my anger might be founded more in jealousy and resentment than truly righteous indignation. The pulpit is never a place for a personal rant. If the anger was my own then all I would be doing was ranting. I never fully resolved to what degree I was accessing personal anger.

The second factor in my deliberations was the fear that the sermon would not be well-received. After all, I would be preaching to a largely wealthy group. In addition, what does a young (well, fairly young) priest who has no money invested in the markets and lives off the good graces of these same parishoners know about money or the markets? Could I possibly understand what those who are invested in the markets must be feeling at the moment? Would it be an act of self-righteous arrogance on my part to presume to speak to the situation? Would I be rejected for preaching a challenging word? If I failed to preach it for this reason, would I be a coward?

The third factor involved a comparing myself with my peers. This is never a good thing, but I am being honest, so I'll name it. Many of my fellow clergy with whom I was educated are strong social gospel and outreach priests. Care for the poor and advocacy for the marginalized forms a large part of their ministry. You will all know that I am something of an ivory tower priest. I am old fashioned. I visit the sick, I write, I preach. I must confess to feeling half a priest some days because I do not share the same passion for outreach as many of my peers. I suppose that when I felt the righteous indignation stirring within me for the gospel of God's "preferential option for the poor," that I must finally take up the call. But was I seeking to be someone who I am not?

I did not preach the sermon. I am not sure if it is because I felt the anger was my own rather than God's. I am not sure if is because I am a coward. I am not sure if it is because I realized that I am not really a social gospel preacher. In the end I felt too confused over my motives in wanting to give the sermon and as to why I wrote it in the first place.

"Preach compassion," said my wife, Athena.

Preach compassion. That is what I try to do every week. I knew that to do so would be authentic to who I am. I struggled with that at first. Am I never allowed to preach a word of challenge? Perhaps. But not this time, I concluded. So I wrote a different sermon and preached it (click here to read it). Several people responded that it had touched them and spoke to them. Should I have preached the first sermon? I do not know. I do believe in preaching the second one that I preached faithfully.

What follows is the sermon I did not preach. I present it not as the word proclaimed or interpreted. Rather, I offer it as an example of the process that we sometimes must go through when we preach a sermon. If I had preached this, would I have abused my call? Or, was I a coward in abandoning it? I leave that to God, for he his my judge.

Homily for Harvest Thanksgiving, Year A, 2008
Intended for Sunday, Oct 5th, 2008
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Psalm 126

“Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy.”
Ps. 126:6

For those of us who grew up not in the country but in the city, or at least the suburbs, the distance between the field and the table can seem quite vast. Therefore, the church’s traditional celebration of thanksgiving, which focuses on the bounty of the harvest, can seem somewhat out of place. After all, when we have fresh produce and all manner of food from around the world at our fingertips, does it not seem odd to celebrate that we the harvest at all? Have any of us here in Thornhill laboured in fields this year? Are we preserving now what we have laboured over because we will not be able to find fresh food once the snow flies? Aside from the beautification of our grounds and some hobby gardening, how many of us rely on our own tilling of the soil for our annual sustenance? And so I say again, why do we celebrate the harvest?

However, because so few of us till the earth perhaps it is crucial for us to make our annual celebration of the harvest. I would suggest that we need to be reminded that our bounty comes not from the store but from the land, and that it comes from the hands of those who still labour against all odds in our quickly decaying environment, and most especially it comes from our creator who has made provision enough for all. All good things around us are sent from heaven above. We should ever remember this fact. Thus, I suggest that it is imperative that we make our annual celebration of the harvest to give thanks to God not only for the bounty that comes from the earth but also for the many blessings that we receive day by day at his hands, the bounty of our lives.

Yet, this calls to mind another reason for keeping the harvest festival, and sadly, it is the darker side of our bounty, and in it there is no cause for celebration or festivity. In our privileged society it is easy to forget that what may be seen to us even as an impoverished life may seem to those in other places as luxury. Even when we do without and find ourselves lacking in something, we may still have much more than so many others. And we must ask ourselves, very seriously, what have we done to till the earth for those who go without? What have we done to share the bounty of the harvest? What have we done honour all that we have received from God?

The psalmist writes, “The Lord has done great things for us and we are glad indeed.” It is easy for us to be glad when we have so much, and yet do we rejoice and give thanks to God for what we have received? Or do we complain and lament over what we do not have? There is a certain irony in the so-called economic crisis facing the world this week. We are crying that the sky is falling and yet, has the sky not already fallen for those who live daily with the reality of hunger in various parts of our world? Has the sky not already fallen on that child who has lost both parents to the ravages of HIV and now must raise her younger siblings into a world of poverty and hopelessness? Has the sky not fallen on them? And where have we been? In the course of a very short week, one world power has the will and the means to commit SEVEN HUNDRED BILLION DOLLARS of the world’s bounty to bail out those who, even in the midst of tragic financial loss, would still be deemed wealthy by the world’s poorest children. Where is the seven hundred billion for those who die because we cannot find the will or the means to offer even the basic blessings we take for granted, like medicine and food. Why is there no moral ambiguity about finding seven hundred billion dollars to offer the rich (and yes, even the average working family in the west is rich by global standards), but when the suggestion is made that we help the poorest of the poor, the way is marred by moral obstacles and ambiguities and cries of “we cannot” for all sorts of apparently logical reasons. How dare we cry “they sky is falling,” when we should be giving thanks and sharing the bounty that God has given us.

The Lord has indeed done great things for us. Shall we believe that the Lord has great things to offer for the rest of the world? Shall we work with our Lord to bring forth his kingdom of justice and dignity for all? Did Christ not come for the whole world? If we rejoice in this life it is because we also know what it is to feel pain, loss, and poverty, be it poverty of goods or poverty of spirit. Each of us knows, in some way, what it is to hurt, to hunger and thirst, to lament, to lose. We may never have done without food or shelter, but we may have gone without love. We may, at some time or another, have been rejected or forgotten. And we all have, I am sure, from time-to-time, felt lost and alone. There are many kinds of poverty in this life. All of us have known some kind of poverty at some point in our lives. Thus, we know what it is to rejoice and celebrate deliverance from affliction, strife and need. We know what it feels like to be relieved of suffering and pain. To rejoice is to confess the reality that there is a way through our poverty, be it economic, material, emotional or spiritual, into the land of promise. As the psalmist writes, “When the Lord restores the fortunes of Zion…Then our mouth is filled with laughter.”

As we celebrate this Harvest Thanksgiving festival, let us never lose sight of the fact that we have much for which to give thanks. The field is far from the table to us in the First World and it is easy for us to forget that we need to give thanks. But because so much comes to us so easily we should not forget that there are those for whom the field and the table are very close and sadly, for them the field is barren and the table is empty. We must pray for God to restore the fortunes of those who go without this day, but what is more we know from whence those fortunes are to come: the fortunes are to be found on our table, my friends, even in the midst of a so-called economic crisis. God has the will for all the needs of the world to be supplied. Do we? God has given growth to the earth that none might go without. Shall we hoard or shall we share? God has given us the compassion to feel the poverty of others; shall we walk alongside them in their time of need? They go along weeping and sow their seed. Let us join with them in sowing the seed our Lord has given us to share. If we do we shall find that we all shall come home with shouts of joy and thanksgiving in our hearts.

Text copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves


Heather said...

I can't think of many Sundays when my motivations for preaching whatever I've preached have been completely un-mixed. And I have written more than one sermon for a given Sunday more than once.

But they say you always preach the sermon you need to hear. Does that ring at all true?

There are parishes in this Diocese where the priests are among the best-paid worshippers present on a Sunday. There are parishes where the priests are among the worst-paid; would being in either of these places have changed what you wanted to say?

FWIW, this didn't strike me as angry, and although tone of voice says much, when my mind's ear heard you preach as I read it, you didn't sound angry either. It may have inspired survivor's guilt in your listeners, though, and the sermon didn't give them anywhere to go with that ("Perhaps as we reflect on just how richly God has blessed us, we might respond by...."). (God gives us guilt for the same reason She gives us pain; to motivate us to do something to get out of a situation we shouldn't be in in the first place.)

As much as I love Athena, IMHO she's wrong. Micah 6:8: DO justice, LOVE mercy. Yes, you can always preach mercy/compassion. But what does the Lord require of us? (tee hee; would I be one of those social gospel priests you were talking about?)

Finally, don't paint yourself into a box (to horribly mix metaphors). I watched you go from a pastor with little sense of his gifts for or calling to children and youth ministry to one who discovered he had strong gifts in this area, even if it is never your first love. I hunch (to quote Bob) that you could well have a similar experience in the social gospel aspects of ministry if you tried to stretch yourself in that way.

(Heather now climbs off her soapbox to go try to deal with conflict in her parish....)

Kristen said...

a former pastoral archdeacon told me this summer, that we always preach the sermon we need to hear. Which makes me wonder what made you preach the one you did instead of the reasons for not preaching this one...

Tay Moss said...

Dan, thanks for sharing this struggle. Like Heather, I can definitely talk about sermons that I haven't preached over the years. In a few cases I've actually preached them to an empty church just to get it out of my system. So I think this is a common thing. My test is whether after having preached the sermon in my imagination I still feel compelled to preach it for real. Is it just something I had to get off my chest, or is it something that persists?

My wife's preaching advice is "Just tell them Jesus loves them." I think it is possible to do this and still be prophetic, even angry. Sometimes you just got to preach angry. For an example of how that can look, take a look at the sermon given by the priest in the movie "On the Waterfront" after a man is killed. I can still hear Father Barry (Karl Malden) booming. Emotional preaching is extremely compelling, and I think that (unfortunately) seminary trains us to avoid going to an emotional place in our preaching and to be suspicious of own emotional needs.

Thanks for sharing your process with us--it shows how dedicated you are to your pastoral responsibilities.


Jane Winstanley said...

I think that what you wrote was very true and I share your anger,frustration at my own selfishness and need for security. However I believe that God moves us to generosity by touching our hearts. God wants us to be generous, but because we love the other, rather than because we feel guilty. Personal stories might bring about a personal response. Jane