Sunday, 11 January 2015

The art of preaching (and my sermon today).

1.   Sermons are essentially oral presentations.  So when we read a sermon we do not see:
(a)  The body language of the preacher ( I "dance" and move my arms about a great deal when I preach).  I could not preach were my hands tied behind my back.
(b)  The variations in tone, speed, and volume of the preacher's voice.
(c)  The ways in which the preacher looks (or does not look)  at the congregation as she/he preaches.
(d) The pauses between sentences and phrases which the preacher uses.
(e)  The connection (or lack of connection) between the preacher and the congregation on any given Sunday.
2.  The preacher has no idea of what will be "heard".  It will most likely NOT be what he/she thinks is the main point of the sermon.
For instance, re my sermon at St. Boniface Church, Siesta Key, FL this morning.  This is what I heard after the service:
a) More than one person wanted to comment on the art of window washing (oh the danger of using "life experience" stories).
b) One woman was stirred to great concern about the plight of homeless people in Sarasota.
c)  Three people were fascinated with my brief introduction,  which talked about the Mandaeans.
d)  Others were enlightened by my comments regarding the "rivalry"  between the John the Baptiser movement, and the Jesus movement.
3.  But all was not lost!
a)  One parishioner said  "thank you, I was fed this morning".
b) Another said  (and this was music to my ears),  "You made me think".
Preaching is not all that it is cracked up to be. 
On the other hand, sometimes, (by the grace of God),  it is much more than it is cracked up to be.
So here is my sermon.  Do please open your bible and read the passages from which my sermon took root.


Sermon for 11th January 2015.

The Revd. J. Michael Povey at St. Boniface Church, Siesta Key, FL

Acts 19:1-7, Mark 4:1-11

Is it John the Baptiser, or is it Jesus?

My friend Johanna used to work with overseas students at Suffolk University in Boston. In the course of her work she met a young man from Iraq who was a Mandaean: that is, a member of a minority ethnic and religious people who live in Iraq and Iran. Mandaeists are not Muslims, or Jews, or Christians.  They revere Adam, Abel, Seth, Enosh, Noah, Shem, Aram and especially John the Baptist, but reject Abraham, Moses and Jesus of Nazareth.  (Information from Wikipedia).   The John the Baptiser movement never entirely died out.  

The bible passages for today speak to the tensions between the earliest followers of John the Baptiser, and the earliest followers of Jesus.

Paul tells the John the Baptist folks that their baptisms “into John” were insufficient and inferior. They seem to have accepted his word, and were baptised again, in the name of the Lord Jesus; the point being (according to Paul) that John would have wanted them to believe in Jesus.  Mark makes a similar point.  According to Mark’s record, John the Baptiser was not “the real thing”, he was but the self effacing precursor for Jesus.  John the Baptiser was the campaign manager, Jesus was the candidate.

Jesus comes from his home town of Nazareth and is baptised by John.  Was this baptism of Jesus a “baptism of repentance” as John taught?

If repentance is a matter of feeling sorry for various sins and offences the answer is no. But if repentance is the desire and action which leads to a journey towards God and in God, then the answer is yes.  Jesus baptism is the event in which his self understanding becomes clear and focused.  He is to live as “the Beloved” of God (hence the voice from heaven).  The “Beloved One” will live in God and move towards God, taking with him those who would be disciples, learners, followers and lovers.

We might think about baptism as that event when our calling to live as the Beloved of God begins to move into focus and clarity?  But of course many of us were infants when we were baptised. We cannot remember our own baptisms.  That does not need to be a problem.  For just as we cannot remember when our mother’s first fed and then weaned us, we do know that they did so because they loved and cared for us in our infant state.  (We learned to eat long before we knew a thing about good nutrition). In the same way in our baptisms baptism God took that maternal initiative to welcome us into a family about which we knew nothing, a family in which we could grow into focus and clarity about our calling, to live in God and to move towards God as the beloved ones.

We sometimes love to binge on fast food (boy is it tasty!) even though we know that it is not good for us. That’s not harmful every now and then, but if we are wise we will be resist the temptation to constantly binge, and remember to make healthy and nutritious food the clear focus of our diets.  In a similar way we need frequent reminders of what it means to live as baptised persons; we need a clearer focus about our journey with Jesus towards God.

That’s why, on this day when Jesus’ own baptism is brought to mind, we will use pray the baptismal covenant.

During the past week I cleaned the windows on my screened in porch.  There are thirty four panels.  I did not realize how dirty they were until I began to clean them, (so dirty that I had to wash each one twice).  I had grown used to a murky view. I should clean them regularly, not just every other year.  Now I can enjoy the view of our lovely pond with greater clarity.  I wished that another person could be with me to stand back and point out the places I missed, for it’s impossible to get windows utterly clean when we stand too close.

It’s a parable about my spiritual life.  I can get used to the murky view and think it to be normal.   Or I can pay attention to it regularly, and look for those Christian friends who will stand with me, but a bit back, to point out the areas which I might otherwise miss.

The renewal of our baptismal promises, done together, not alone, is akin to spiritual window washing.  It’s something we need to do.

Take the other week for example. I can sometimes be proud that I am not racist.  So, if I need to go that way, I’ll drive through Newtown (Sarasota's majority African-American area), as a little (somewhat pretentious) statement that, public opinion to the contrary, it is not a dangerous place to be.

Or I’ll use the North Library in that area. 

The other week I decided to go to the Wal-Mart neighbourhood market on the north Trail as a prideful “statement” that I am happy to shop in a store where most   customers are black.    As I left the store I noticed a thirty-something African American man as he finished his cigarette.  I began to walk toward my car, and he began to follow.  I got unreasonably nervous. I stopped, and then I zigzagged.  He saw this and called out “it’s alright, I am not following you”. Of course he wasn’t. He was simply walking to his car.

“Will you”, the baptismal covenant asks me “respect the dignity of every human being?”  I am not allowed to respond “yes, except when I am in Newtown”.

Then there’s this bit which I wrote in my blog earlier this week.

Wednesday mornings see me at Resurrection House (a day shelter for homeless people in SRQ), to lead a prayer service.  Attendance has been sparse in recent weeks. But on both Wednesday 31st December 2014, and on Wednesday 7th January I met two different homeless men who each wanted to talk about their lives and failures.

 I don't normally offer counsel, but on both weeks I decided to listen, and to respond with care. In each case the men:

1. Blamed others for the failures which best them.

2.  Could not be honest about their own responsibility, until I pressed them not to evade the truth.

3. Found many reasons to reject my suggestions regarding possible ways out of their mire.

 "Tut tut"  you may well say, (as I did as I counselled these men).
But as I drove home this came to mind: "Oh yes I am often just like that". 

I want to blame others for my failures; I fail to be deeply honest about my life;  I reject those suggestions which might upset my apple-cart (even though those suggestions might lead to a greater wholeness in my life).

“Will you”, the baptismal covenant asks me “whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”

Those Mandaeans practice frequent baptisms, some of them on a daily basis.  That is not the Christian practice, but the public affirmation of our Baptismal Covenant is a gracious opportunity for some spiritual window washing:  an important task through which we can see again with clarity our vocation to walk with the Lord Jesus as God’s Beloved Ones.

We’ll do so in a short while, not as triumphal proclamation, but as a humble prayer.

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