Here’s today’s sermon. Sorry, no audio today.
It is fitting that the sermon on the pulpit should come on the day we remember the little monk from Assisi who, in response to a divine voice, “rebuilt God’s church,” which was by then wracked and wrecked with corruption and condescension. It is fitting for two reasons. I’d like to talk about both those reasons this morning.
What is the one thing you know for sure St. Francis said about preaching? “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” There are two things wrong with that statement. The most egregious one is that St. Francis never said it. The closest he comes is in chapter 12 of his rule when he advises the brothers that their preaching should agree with their actions. And of course, who could argue with that? No, Francis founded a preaching order. An order all about words. Indeed, he was a bit of a preaching fanatic—preaching as he did to the birds. For him, the Gospel was Good News for the whole creation, and every living thing needed to know the Good News of the Savior.
So, here’s the first reason for a sermon on preaching on St. Francis’ Day: Francis was a preacher! An eccentric, intense preacher at that. And if we want to get a sense of the power that lies in the Word proclaimed, there are few better places to look than accounts of Francis’s own life. It is fitting on a preacher’s day that we should talk about the task of preaching.
For today, on St. Francis’s Day, our gaze moves from space—the story itself, to font—where we enter it, to lectern—where we listen to it, to today, the pulpit, where the story is proclaimed. The Word of God in Holy Scripture, once heard, calls forth a response from God’s people. It calls forth proclamation. And the place where that proclamation is made public is right here, in the pulpit.
At the lectern, we listened to the word of God. We listened to what the prophets and the apostles said. At the pulpit we listen to the sermon. We listen to what the Church must say on the basis of what it has heard.
And that, I think, is where we can begin to think about the sermon. The sermon is a response. It is elicited speech. It is speech compelled by the address of the word of God.
“An obligation is laid on me!” wrote St. Paul to his conflict ridden community in Corinth. “And woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.” Paul had been addressed by the word of God. In a manner far more immediate, but no less real, than we are addressed every week. And Paul’s response: the proclamation of what I have heard is not an option. It is an obligation. A necessity. I cannot not preach. The prophet Jeremiah expressed a similar drive when he wrote “God’s word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” The response called forth by the word of God, because the God who calls it, cannot be suppressed. It is an erupting and disrupting word.
It is an erupting and disrupting word because it is the place where God’s Word is made present to God’s people. The sermon is the site where God’s word should so touch the lives of God’s people that the transformation begun at our baptisms and continued as we listen to Holy Scripture read, is deepened further. If God’s Word is present, then God is present, and if God is present, it cannot be anything but an erupting and disrupting presence. I cannot but change us if and as we attend to it.
That, it seems to me, should fill us with excitement, anticipation, and maybe even fear.
For the preacher, the notion that the Spirit of God has, in the Word of God, not only called forth this response, but also will enliven this response such that it bears fit witness to that word is, or should be terrifying.
The preacher, to borrow a phrase of John Stott’s, is a man or woman placed between two worlds to act as a bridge, if you will. And that, if the preacher takes her responsibility seriously, is an exciting and frightening place to be. O Lord may my words be fit witness to and vessels of your Word. That simple prayer is one I pray every week in my study, every morning in the pulpit. And now you know why.
Here, in the sermon, is where God’s erupting, disrupting word addresses God’s people. And that lays an obligation on the preacher.
If the pulpit is the place where God’s Word heard becomes God’s word proclaimed, this also lays an obligation on the listeners. Namely, to listen for that Word. Preachers are human. Not only are we human, but we are also sinners. There are all kinds of ways in which my words will, because of my own weaknesses, fail to be fit vehicles for the Word. And the temptation for listeners is to be distracted by the failures and foibles of the preacher, the weaknesses of his or her words, and so miss the erupting, disrupting Word.
So even as I pray that my words will be fit witnesses and vessels, I have a prayer for you, too. Here it is: “Somewhere in there, God is going to speak. God is going to speak to me. May I so listen as to leave changed.”
Now, some of you might remember that at the beginning of the sermon today, I said there were two reasons to find St. Francis’s Day a fitting one for reflecting on the task of preaching. I haven’t forgotten the second reason. There is a second reason. We’ve hinted at that second reason already. Francis was a preacher. His brothers in the Order of the Friars Minor were preachers. Francis was not opposed to the use of words, as he is sometimes presented.
He was deeply concerned that words and actions should conform to the one simple message of the Gospel, lest lifestyle empty sermons of their power. When Francis first approached Pope Innocent III for permission to start a new order, the Pope was at first reluctant to grant permission because Francis’s rule—the principles by which he and his brothers would live—was too harsh. He advised Francis to relax them—even just a little—and assured him that permission would be given once an easier rule was produced. Francis was perplexed. All we are doing, he is reported to have said, is trying to live the life of our Lord as presented in the Gospels. And if we relax our rule, we say this life is impossible. And if we say this life is impossible, then we say the Gospel is impossible. Faced with such an argument, Pope Innocent relented and gave permission for the founding of the order that became known as the Franciscans. Francis and his brothers would live as they preached and preach as they lived so that they could offer one integrated witness to the one Gospel of the one Lord Jesus.
What does that have to do with us? Well, this morning it reminds us that while preaching is a task given shape by the pulpit, it doesn’t stop at the pulpit. While I am vocationally a preacher, I am not the only preacher in this room. There are, by my estimation, about ninety more preachers here, too. And our pulpit is wherever the Lord takes us, under brother Sun and sister Moon.
All of us gathered around lectern and pulpit today will encounter the Word of God. Indeed the Word of God will mediate the Spirit of God. We will meet with God. The fire that burns but does not consume will, if we let it, be shut up in our bones as surely as it was in the prophet Jeremiah. And as we are sent forth at our service’s conclusion, that word will spill out.
The way we live Monday through Saturday is as much a part of the proclamation called forth from the Church by the Word as the words of the preacher on any given Sunday. Perhaps even moreso. That much the misquotation of St. Francis gets absolutely right. Wherever you go, whatever you do, preach the Gospel! It really is good news. And not just good news for me or for you or for us. It is Good News which shall be for all people as the angel said to the dumbstruck shepherds on Christmas night.
So it is that the life of St. Francis presents us with a twofold challenge here. There is, first, the obvious challenge of living lives of Christian integrity. I ran across a facebook meme last week that was so good, I had to share it. Some of you have already seen it. But here it is again. “The Chruch is not full of hyporcrites: there’s room for you, too.” There is a deep truth here—all of us at some time or other, or if we’re more honest, at many times and others, fall short of the glory of God. There are times when our lives fail to match our words and times when they fail spectacularly. But here remember the words of Francis: if the solution to the charge of hypocrisy is to stop trying, to stop growing in holiness, to stop pursuing the path of discipleship, then we are saying the Gospel is impossible. And if that’s what we’re saying, then maybe it really is time to just close the doors.
Keep pursuing lives of Christian integrity in which work and word agree. And remember the promise you made in your baptismal covenant, when you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.
Here’s the second challenge St. Francis the preacher leaves with us. Word and work belong together, not just for preachers or clergy or exceptionally devout. Word and work belong together for all whom the Lord has claimed as his own in the waters of baptism. By insisting on the harmony of our words and our works, St Francis reminds us that “living a good life” or if you want to make it sound extra spiritual, “incarnating the Gospel,” without the words to give a rationale for that life is a mute and finally inadequate witness. It is incomplete. The two—life and language—come together and each sounds out the other.
Does this mean you are all preachers in the technical sense? All ready to give a sermon on a Sunday morning? No. But you are all—we are all—called to be witness to the Gospel. To proclaim it. And proclamation necessarily—not exclusively—but necessarily involves words. The call of Peter in his first letter, “Always be ready to give an account for the hope that is within you,” was not a call given to postulants or ordinands or clergy or to exceptionally devout lay people. It was and is a call that lies on all of us.
All of us are called, in the measure of the graces given to us, to be preachers. What is given liturgical shape by the pulpit is not to remain at the pulpit but to spill over into the whole world. So, everywhere you go, preach the Gospel! And to be true to St. Francis, let me add, “when the time calls for it, use words.”