Deuteronomy 8.1-3

II Timothy 4.1-5

Sausagemaking 101

(and other things you don’t necessarily want to know about sermons)

Last Sunday after Epiphany

Today is the last Sunday of Epiphany, the last Sunday before Lent begins.  You know Lent, that season when it is my responsibility to remind all of you what miserable sinners we are, again and again and again for the next seven weeks.  Lent, that season of penitence and sacrifice and fasting and prayer – did I mention penitence? – Lent begins this Wednesday, so this morning I thought we’d do something on the lighter side before we actually get there.  (Although I will say, I thought last Sunday’s sermon in rhyme was on the lighter side, but one of said to me afterwards, “That was one sermon where my mind could not wander – I had to pay attention to every last word of it!.  So I guess I never really know what a sermon is going to say to someone – which is kind of the point of this morning’s sermon.)

I’m going to be away the last weekend of this month.  My niece Molly is getting married in Philadelphia, and she asked me to perform the ceremony.  But ever since I’ve been here at the United Church, I’ve always felt like I’m missing something good on the Sundays I’m away, because we have such great people we can call on to lead worship.  Toni Smith and Eileen Sypher naturally come first to mind, but we also have a number of gifted and capable members of our congregation who preach occasionally as well.  In fact, I had an intriguing conversation last week with one of you who suggested that, from time to time, there appears to be a good natured, although tacet, competition to see who can lead the shortest service.  That person, who will remain anonymous, told me that the record is 31 minutes.  “For the sermon?” I asked, and the reply was, “No, for the entire service.”  Wow, 31 minutes - that’s pretty impressive.  I won’t name that short-winded preacher, although I will say it made me laugh out loud to hear it.  However, as the saying goes, Uneasy rests the head that wears the crown.  Because in June, when I’m away at another family wedding, our preacher will be none other than Barbara Jan Wilson.  I suspect that thirty-one minutes is a record just waiting to be broken, and if anyone can do it, Barbara Jan is the woman.  Still, regardless of just how long or how brief that spring Sunday service will be, we are so blessed with a bevy of capable worship leaders right here in our pews that I am sorely tempted, some Sunday, to take the day off, put on a fake beard and moustache, and sit in the back of the congregation just to hear you all preach.

It probably was not Otto von Bismarck, first Chancellor of the German Empire, who is responsible for the quotation on the back of our bulletin this morning.  About thirty years earlier a writer named John Godfrey Saxe wrote, “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”  But Bismarck’s rendition is more pithy, and we get it:  “Laws are like sausages.  It’s better not to see them being made.”   There are just some things you don’t need, and in some cases want, to see being made, you just want to enjoy the end product.  Throughout my years of ministry I have heard many friends and colleagues preach, and I must confess that there are some sermons that I’ve heard that fall into that sausage-making category.  You’ve likely heard a few yourselves.  They tend to sound something like this:

“I was going to preach about the Transfiguration this morning.  But as I was doing my research I came across this wonderful quotation in the book of Ezekiel that started me thinking about the Old Testament prophets and how Jesus understood them.  Then the phone rang and one of my colleagues told me she going to a peace rally that’s happening next month and would I like to go along, and so I thought it would be a good idea to talk about that.  So I started looking through the Bible for verses about peace, and reading through some commentary when I came across an article about William Sloane Coffin and how he inspired climate change activist Bill McKibben, so I started to think about creation theology and I redirected to the opening chapters of Genesis.…”

…and the sermon goes on and on about how it was put together with string and bubblegum and sealing wax but it never actually gets to the point.  I’ve probably preached a few of these myself.  In fact that’s a little of what this morning’s sermon feels like, except this is the point, that a lot of things go into creating a sermon and what comes out on Sunday morning at 10:00 is only because it is 10:00.  If I had one hour more, or even one hour less, the sermon might sound very different.

Here is what Paul wrote to a young Timothy about preaching:  “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus… I solemnly urge you:  proclaim the gospel; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable” – or, as the King James Version so lyrically puts it, “preach the word; be instant in season and out of season” – “convince, rebuke and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.”  I think this is what I try to do, and it can happen in so many different ways, and each time I sit down to write I learn something a little different about it.  For example, some sermons come like a bolt out of the blue.  Mozart once said that entire symphonies would come to him in a flash, and the hardest part was to get it all written down before he lost it.  Well, I’m definitely no Mozart, but sometimes I’ll sit down at the keyboard, or be out for a walk, or riding my bike, and an entire sermon will very nearly write itself; I just need to pay attention to where it’s going, and get it down on paper before any of it gets lost up here..  Other weeks there is so much reading and research and prayer, lots and lots of prayer, that it seems like I’ll never be able to pull it all together by 10:00 Sunday.  Do you remember last summer’s sermon about “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?”  It looked at the Genesis story of Cain and Abel; well, that was one of the hardest sermons I’ve written in a long long time; not because it was difficult to find something to say, but because there was way too much to say.  Only about a third of what I could have said or written about that story actually made it into the sermon; there were unused notes and stories and ideas all over my desk and office floor that weekend.  And it’s funny, I can’t tell you how often this happens, that when I think I’ve got a real dud of a sermon, like it’s not going to go anywhere and you all will be bored out of your minds, you’ll come out the door and tell me that’s one of the best ones you’ve heard in a long time.  And the opposite is equally true:  when I think I’ve knocked it out of the park and you’re about to compliment me for the most brilliant and compelling thing you’ve ever heard, you’ll look at me with a blank stare and say something anodyne like, “Nice sermon, Reverend,” which of course means it was anything but. This is just another reason I just put it all in God’s hands and trust the Holy Spirit to sort it all out.

I do have one cardinal rule though, and that is always, always, begin with scripture.  It doesn’t matter if I don’t start talking about it until halfway through the sermon, but for me the Bible must always be the starting place.  This is what led me to both readings this morning, the one about bread and the word I read from Deuteronomy and the one Ed read from Paul’s letter to a young Timothy, the fledgling pastor of a new church start.  I always begin with scripture, because this is where truth and authority reside.  It’s not with me, it’s not with the pulpit, it’s not with the lectionary, it is with the story of God, engaged with humanity that sets the foundation for everything that follows, principally to God’s engagement with you and me today.  And that brings to mind a corollary I learned many years ago:  I never, ever write a sermon that is intended for one or two particular members of the congregation who I know just need to hear what I have to say to them.  Reason one is that if I do, I will shortchange everyone who is not that person or people; and two, even more important, the person I write it for will inevitably stay home from church that morning.  Never fails.

And so it is a good thing that we are blessed with the insights of so many more sermonizers than myself:  people like Toni, Eileen, Lol, Barbara Jan and others.  Likewise over the next seven weeks we will also be blessed with the insights of some of my friends and colleagues, people like Molly Baskette and Quinn Caldwell and Emily Heath and John Edgerton and Mary Luti, as our sermons will follow the trajectory of this year’s UCC Lent devotional, “Take Nothing With You.”  I encourage you all to take one – there should be enough for one per family – and as you read it on a regular basis, I will be using some of the ideas and scriptures – always the scriptures – each Sunday morning for our own Lenten journey.  It is a journey I am eager for us to walk together.

Amen.

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