Sunday, February 16, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "This is so Meta"

Acts 17:16-21

16 While Paul waited for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to find that the city was flooded with idols. 17 He began to interact with the Jews and Gentile God-worshippers in the synagogue. He also addressed whoever happened to be in the marketplace each day. 18 Certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers engaged him in discussion too. Some said, “What an amateur! What’s he trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods.” (They said this because he was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19 They took him into custody and brought him to the council on Mars Hill. “What is this new teaching? Can we learn what you are talking about? 20 You’ve told us some strange things and we want to know what they mean.” (21 They said this because all Athenians as well as the foreigners who live in Athens used to spend their time doing nothing but talking about or listening to the newest thing.) (Common English Bible)

“Adventures in Churchland: A Visitor’s Experience of Mainline Worship,” Week Four

The skylights were such that the arched over the round in which I was preaching—my childhood church had a very new sanctuary that lacked any sort of pulpit, so I was standing there, on my own, that Sunday morning in May ten years ago, preaching my senior sermon for youth Sunday.

And my microphone had just stopped working (does this sound familiar to anyone here?!).  In and of itself, that is not a big deal, it would just mean I would have to talk a whole lot louder.

But I was not exactly capable in that moment of talking any louder than I already was, for the night previous I had been awoken by one of those 3:00-in-the-morning phone calls that all of us dread.  A childhood friend of mine, coincidentally named Eric, had been in a car crash while not wearing a seatbelt.  He was killed instantly.  And that very next morning, on half a night’s sleep and in emotional and spiritual disarray, I had to preach on, of all things, the chapter where Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd—John 10.

The Son of God did not feel like an especially good shepherd to me that morning.

But then, as the microphone was quitting on me and I was running on fumes in every possible way, the sunlight came out from above the skylights in the sanctuary ceiling…and came down upon me.  My temperature skyrocketed and enough energy returned that I continued on preaching…and I don’t remember entirely what I said, I know that I quoted Hugo and Emerson and that I said some other stuff, but it made it all feel an awful lot like that Pentecost story in Acts 2, when the flame of the Holy Spirit descends upon the disciples, and even though they do not know what everyone else is saying (because each is speaking in their native tongue), they understand each other perfectly.

I had no clue what I was saying, but it felt like, in that moment, that maybe God understood me perfectly.  It was when I finally knew, had finally been made to understand, that I could do this for a living.  I could be a pastor.  And it was when I at last realized that preaching is not meant to only change the audience of a sermon.  Sometimes, it is meant to change the author of it as well.

This is a sermon series that will take us all the way up to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the church season of Lent.  And this is a series about something that may or may not be new in the slightest to us: Sunday worship.  For those of us who were born and raised in the church and have lived in the church our entire lives, worship may be second nature to us by this point: some tunes, some prayers, some preachin’, some bread and juice, and it’s off to Sunday brunch.  But for those of us for whom church is an entirely new experience, this may all come across as one tin-foil hat away from something utterly bizarre to you.  I think I can safely say that after reading Dan Kimball’s 2013 book, “Adventures in Churchland,” in which at one point he conveys, in vivid detail, his initial worship experience at a church that I instantly recognized as a mainline Protestant church—a church like ours with a pastor in robes and an organ in the sanctuary and the serving of communion—none of which are typical trappings in many evangelical churches.  And Dan, having come in off the street, was both bemused and confused by everything this church did as a part of its worship…but we do some of the exact same things, and so it stands to reason that perhaps our worship is confusing for newcomers as well.  So, the point of this sermon series is to not only explain why we worship the way we do, but hopefully to equip you to do the same when other folks ask you why we worship the way we do!  We began by simply talking about where we worship—our sanctuary, the church building—before talking about how we worship, and though we lost a week of the sermon series to the Snowpocalypse of 2014, we can continue on by moving from talking about worship music two weeks ago to talking about, well, the whole listening-to-a-sermon thing  we do today.  Pastor Dan writes:

After welcoming us to the meeting, he (the pastor) had everyone read from a book kept on racks behind each pew.  We were supposed to read sections from the book, alternating with his reading in a deep monotone voice…Randy and I didn’t really feel comfortable chanting with the others, so we watched everyone else reading.  Then the organ played and some people sang a song or two, which I didn’t recognize, while we just stood there staring at the pages of a songbook.

The man in the robe gave a talk of some sort, which felt more like a dramatic reading to me.  He spoke with various inflections, and the words he used weren’t ones we use in everyday language.  He had a formal style of speaking.  Then, without explanation, people began standing up and going down the aisle to the front, where they kneeled on a low bench that went across the front of the stage.  You could tell they knew what they were doing: they went up row by row like they’d been doing this for years.

So we have moved from what is sung in worship—our praise music—to what is spoken in worship—our readings and our sermons.

And there really is an awful lot that I could say about the words we—and I—use in worship, but all of it would ultimately and fundamentally come down to one observation: at least in reading Pastor Dan’s words, I gleaned no sense of passion in this faith community that he describes.

And perhaps that is harsh of me to say.  After all, I do not know what particular church is being described here, and I do not know if maybe they were simply having an off-day and that usually, things were a little spicier.  But I will stand by my most basic tenet of preaching until the day I hang up my robe for good: being in possession of the truth does you little good if you cannot effectively communicate it to other people.

Which is why this story out of Acts 17 is so remarkable.  Paul is well out of his depth—he is educated and worldly, yes, but he is educated as a Jewish Pharisee, not as a Stoic or Epicurean Greek.  You might be familiar with Stoicism because of its famous teaching of not showing emotion during suffering, but Epicureanism had absolutely nothing to do with fine dining—these are emphatically not the “epicures dining in Crewe” who find a rather large mouse in the stew.  No, Epicurean Greeks were, in the words of New Testament scholar Paul Walaskay, “pragmatic atheists who taught that belief in the gods is not particularly useful, especially in light of life’s inevitable sufferings.  Even if gods do exist, they obviously do not care much about human beings.  The Stoics, on the other hand, had a well-developed theology that taught that the mind of Zeus (the greatest and highest of the gods) is reason/logos itself.”

Paul originally argues in the Athenian synagogue, which of course makes sense—it represents his home turf as an Israelite Jew—but then he moves on to arguing in the marketplace with whoever happens to be there.  And this is where it gets a little kookyboots—I mean, can you imagine having some Israelite crank haranguing you on your way into Safeway for milk?  Granted, public argument was much more of a part of ancient Greek culture than of contemporary American culture, but it still easily got Paul the attention of these atheist and Zeus-logic-loving Greek philosophers without getting himself arrested as a public nuisance. (“This just in on Eyewitness News at 6: A vehement and feisty old fellow found arguing with passersby…”)

And that attention is entirely sincere—while some are quite ready to dismiss Paul as a babbler of foreign gods, the philosophers want to know what this new thing is, the good news of Jesus and of His resurrection.  “It sounds rather strange to us, but we would like to know what it means.”

Now, first of all, how great would it be if every person outside the church approached the church this way: “Y’all are kinda strange to me, but I want to know what your beliefs mean to you?”  But second of all, there is a burden incumbent upon us to create an atmosphere where people can feel safe to be that intellectually and spiritually curious, and we have not been shouldering that burden.  Pastors have been misusing the privilege of our sermons to create an atmosphere in our churches where doubt is a sin, where questions are unwelcome, and where the person who is not there yet, who just can’t quite believe this bit of doctrine, is outed and forced to rise and confess.  In the face of these churches, we would be apt to stick to the first part—“Y’all are kinda strange to me,” but I cannot imagine people outside the church would want to know about us, either.

Similarly, though, people outside the church often do not care to know about us if we show no evident joy and passion for our beliefs—if they have become only a rote exercise like for the folks in Pastor Dan’s story who had “been doing this for years.”  Perhaps the best use of preaching is to act as an inoculation, as a vaccination, against that sort of torpor, because we preachers are not called simply to have the truth.  We have to offer it to others, which means it is my holy task to engage you in my sermons and in my teachings for however long I have asked for your time.  Preaching can very easily be dynamic and engaging, and when it isn’t—when it is stiff and unfamiliar—the rest of our worship life can, and often will, suffer by extension.

And that is what makes this a slightly odd, meta-tastic sermon for me to give.  I am preaching, in effect, on the art of preaching.  Which means that I am preaching to myself just as much as I am preaching to all of you, but one of the things I learned from that sermon I gave as a boy a decade ago, was that preaching is meant for the preacher in addition to being meant for the audience.

So I hope that my sermons do, in fact, on occasion change you.  Not because my ego needs the boost, but because it means that this church is equipping you to in turn change others.  It means that we are doing our job of creating Disciples of Christ, who, like the Twelve, like the Seventy, like Paul himself, are prepared to go out into the world with little more than the Word and still hope to make a difference.  That is the dream I have every time I stand before you here.  

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
February 16, 2014

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