IF YOU CAN’T EXPLAIN IT SIMPLY,
YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND IT WELL ENOUGH
– ALBERT EINSTEIN
There’s a story about St Francis of Assisi taking a young novice with him on a preaching assignment to a neighbouring town.
Along the way, the two encountered a number of people in trouble of various kinds, and like good Franciscans, the two monks helped out. The hours of the day passed and the young monk finally found the courage to remind St Francis that they had a preaching assignment. Francis response was: “There is no use going anywhere to preach unless you preach everywhere you go.” The whole exercise had been an object lesson for the young monk, by the wise Francis, who is also credited with saying: “Preach the Gospel. When necessary, use words” (apocryphal or not, it’s a good story).
The first Christian Creed was brief, direct and effective: “Jesus is Lord.” The early Christians were apparently less about words than about living and celebrating the love of God.
We can be far too wordy and complicated. But as many a husband has found out, there can be times when we don’t say nearly enough. So it’s finding the right combination of words and actions that is important. Martin Luther’s advice to preachers was this: “Stand up, speak out, and sit down.” That sounds pretty good, but Luther himself typically preached more than an hour at a time, so obviously, it took him a while to sit down, once he got going.
Because of the parish picnic today, I tried to think of some way of preaching the world’s shortest sermon. So I’ve failed already, because there are numerous one-word and one-line sermons out there. But note that I’m not apologizing either.
There are some stellar examples of brevity in preaching. There are others which seem to be gimmicks, for the most part, like the pastor who simply said “Repent!” and another one who walked out on the stage, looked at the congregation, said “Go,” then ceremoniously dropped the microphone on the floor and walked off. I’m guessing that many in the congregation were thinking more about how much it was going to cost to replace the microphone than about the message, however brief it might have been. Others, of course, used to fiddling with their leaflet and rummaging in their pockets or purses (or, dare I say, noses?) for the usual treasures during the sermon, would no doubt have said, just as simply: “What did he say?”
One of the best short sermons was preached at the funeral of French King Louis XIV, from the pulpit of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. King Louis was known as “the Sun King”, and the preacher, Bishop Jean-Baptiste Massillon, Bishop of Clermont, said simply “Dieu seul est grand.” (Only God is great). Now that is a great short sermon! And a pretty daring one at that!
I’ve often threatened to mime a sermon, just to give those people who don’t like words a bit of a break. But seriously, the issue is: how do we translate the proclamation into faithful and effective action?
I recall a priest having his sermon interrupted by a homeless man entering the church, and as a number of parishioners responded to his needs, the preacher told the congregation not to worry about the disruption — he didn’t need to finish the sermon because the parishioners were already demonstrating what he was trying to say (it’s always gratifying to know that your words are having some real effect and not merely disappearing into a black hole).
Let’s give God credit for proclaiming the biggest truth in the fewest words. God has spoken the one word to humanity that it most needs to hear, and that Word we see in the person of Jesus the Christ. It is an embodied word – a demonstrated word – a word communicated by a human life. And not only the Cross and Resurrection, but YOU, are the validation of the word that Jesus was meant to communicate.
I could easily get up here and preach a one-word sermon like “Believe!” or “Love!” or “Serve!” But it’s not the number of words that is the issue – it is always a question of what you’re going to do with those words – how you’re going to act on them.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is quoted as saying: “Be dressed for action!” Today’s Gospel might be summed up thus: “Rid yourself of everything that you don’t need. Simplify your lives and demonstrate the reality of your faith by acts of generosity and compassion. Always be ready – always be attentive — always be living in the light – believing that the kingdom is close at hand.” Jesus demonstrated the truth of what he was saying by living it, by “walking the talk,” by offering himself without reservation.
I heard recently of a priest who developed a liturgical dismissal that went something like: “Get up, get out, get busy” – as if to say, enough words, the pep talk can’t go on forever — time to get out there and do something about bringing this vision to life.
So I say to you: Your life is your Gospel. Jesus is the one Word – the only Word — you need. Ready or not — Go! Go and be Christ – demonstrate Christ – for the sake of those who have not seen or heard what it means to live in the love of God. This week let someone see you preaching a sermon without words.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+
Hebrews 11: 1—3 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.2Indeed, by faith* our ancestors received approval.3By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.*
Luke 12:32-48 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.33Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.35“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit;36be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.37Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.38If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.39“But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.40You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”