On Slavery

The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said,

‘If only we had meat to eat! 5We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons,

the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; 6but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.’

(Numbers 11:4-6)

At its most recent meeting, Sudbury City Council passed a motion to de-regulate store hours entirely. Within 2 days of the vote, our local SuperStore announced that it would be the first 24/7 store in Greater Sudbury. I have not commented on the matter up to now, except to say that I voted against this in the referendum included on the ballot in the last municipal election. Well, now that the matter is settled, the battle lost, I’d like to highlight a couple of silly reasons attributed to those of us who voted in opposition, then explain why I did vote the way I did and finally, what I will do to express my deep concern that this is a mistake.

First, the non-reasons. I need to highlight these because throughout the campaign, people who opposed the measure were caricatured as “anti-choice” and “religious zealots.” Both charges are false. I did not vote to oppose the change because I am anti-choice, but because retail workers, among the most vulnerable workers in our economy, need to have space to make choices. The deregulation of store hours effectively removes some of those choices by now making every hour of every day a potential work hour, controlled by someone other than retail workers, namely their employers. Second, I did not vote to oppose the change because I am a religious zealot. I do care about this issue in part because I am a clergyman, but not because I desire to force my faith on anyone who does not want it.

Now the reasons. The first one is a desire to protect a vulnerable segment of workers in our community, namely, retail workers. I have no desire to take away their choice to work, nor to prevent them from being paid a greater hourly wage for working difficult hours. I doubt, however, that the people who work retail have the freedom to regard the question of whether or not to work a graveyard shift with such dispassion. Because of the crap wages they are already paid, some will feel compelled by “market forces” to “choose freely” to work such shifts. I can’t see that as a good thing. An employer might not be saying, “work these shifts or I’ll fire you,” but the market exercises control over all of us in much more subtle and insidious ways. And those ways are every bit as compulsive to their victims as they are unseen by many of us. In deregulating store hours, our city council has promised our most vulnerable workers “meat and fish” but at the cost of “making bricks without straw.” (That’s religious language, of course. It comes from the Exodus narratives in the Old Testament and I’ll come back to that in a minute). For now, I want to say that there is a general principle in the religious language here that has to do with markets. The deregulation of store hours effectively says, there is no time that is not potentially work time. The market will decide whether a worker gets leisure space or when or how much. But if the market is deciding, then workers aren’t. And if workers aren’t then, all the while using the rhetoric of choice, we’ve taken choice away from them.

Now, to the religious language, and the second reason. I don’t expect WalMart or Superstore workers to come flocking to church because I spoke out against 24/7 shopping. I grimly note that that battle was lost long ago in hockey arenas across the country. My concerns have nothing whatsoever to do with protecting my own turf. But, the critics are right to point out that it is a religious argument. Here’s my response: So what? If my faith teaches me to care for the poor and disadvantaged and vulnerable, how is that a bad thing? And why is it ruled out of public discourse before hand? My concerns flow out of my faith, and are directed toward care for the community, not putting bums on pews. What is often missed, here, is that the pro-market arguments are every bit as religious. They speak of “the market” as having agency. The market will decide. The market will regulate. Let the market preserve freedom of choice. How the hell (yes, really) can “the market” do those things? The market can only do those things if, in some way, it is given personal agency by those who serve it. Hmm. A disembodied person who demands allegiance and who makes decisions for people. Sounds like a divinity to me. And an enslaving one at that. It seems to me that the pro-market arguers must explain why their arguments are not finally religious in just the same way mine are, why it is not the case that our arguments simply happen to serve different deities.

So, I continue to remain opposed. I will no longer be shopping at SuperStore. And as the list of 24/7 retailers grows, so will my list of places I will not patronize. It is a small and finally meaningless gesture. My grocery bill is not going to affect anyone’s bottom line. But for the sake of my conscience, I have to keep one day in seven when someone will not have to serve me. Because everyone deserves a Sabbath. Everyone deserves a rest from work. And I cannot see how this isn’t a return to Egypt, an embrace of slavery.

Sermon: The Gospel in Seven Words

It’s a little late, but here’s last Sunday’s sermon.

People who follow Fr. Robert Barron and Word On Fire will notice obvious overlaps with his own homily for last Sunday. I can only say, my sermon was “in the can,” well before I heard the good Father’s homily. It is, I would hope, a Providential confluence of good ideas, guided by the Gospel lesson.

Ordinary Heroism

calvaryThe movie Calvary tells the story of Father James Lavelle, a good—that point must be stressed, a good—Irish Catholic priest. In the opening scene, in the confessional, Father Lavelle hears a story of horrific abuse, perpetrated by another priest whose crimes have been made unpunishable by his death. The “penitent” then announces that he will kill Father James instead. He has chosen Father James to die precisely because Father James is a good priest. It is a fitting irony; the innocent will die in place of the guilty. Father James is told that he will die in one week, on the beach—if he shows up.

The rest of the movie is the Passion Week of Father James Lavelle. Played by Brendan Gleeson (perhaps best known as Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter franchise), Lavelle is a man whose large physical stature stands in sharp contrast to his diminished presence in the community. What use is a priest when a community has given up on God? What does he do? He does what he always does. He visits. He advises. He consoles the living and buries the dead. Above all, he worships. And the days tick off one after another until, in one of the last scenes, Father James is on the beach, there to meet his own Calvary.

Father James is a hero. In contrast to all the heroes, super, semi, and otherwise that parade across our TV and movie screens, though, he is utterly ordinary. He is a man who hopes, who doubts, whose faith is sorely tested. Like Gary Cooper in High Noon, he is set in town that sees little need for him, would rather be rid of him. (In one heart-rending moment, he is the victim of a father’s vicious suspicion for simply walking beside a young girl. We understand and sympathize both with the father and with Father James. They have both been shaped by an evil they did not make). And whether the townspeople want it or not, he does, day in and day out, what he always does. That makes him a hero.

He is a hero to all of us in parish ministry wrestling with how to minister in a world of increasing stresses, decreasing expectations and waning professional influence. His heroism does not lie in some gift or technology that the rest of us do not possess. His cassock does not imbue him with magical powers. He is a hero because he gets on with the job. He is a hero because refuses to abandon the way of the cross, but instead follows it even to the beach, to his own Calvary.

Father Lavelle is also a parable for Christians now living in fading sunlight of faith in the West. Here we are, hurrying hither and yon: sociologists writing, and Christian leaders reading, article after article, graph after graph, about millennials and nones and somes and dones and together making suggestions about what we can do to get people back to church, or interested in Jesus, or to reconsider faith. All the while we know that nightfall is beyond our control.

Maybe, just maybe, what we need to do is to stop the futile attempt to fix things and instead, to get on with the job of preaching the Gospel, serving the sacraments, visiting the sick, advising the discomfitted, consoling the living and burying the dead. Maybe the future of the church in Canada lies not in superheroic strategies of rejuvenation, but the ordinary heroism of living our faith simply and fully, all the while recognizing that suffering comes not in spite of doing so, but because of it.

Maybe it’s time to stop avoiding our Calvary and like our Lord, set our faces like flint toward it in the hope that there will be a Sunday morning after.Fr Lavelle


(A version of the preceding piece will appear in the January edition of ChristianWeek (www.christianweek.org). Please support them with a click or a purchase)

Hope Deferred

Here is today’s sermon. It is based largely on the OT lesson, Is. 64:1-9. Hope Deferred

Review: Something Other than God

something other than god picFor a good chunk of this past semester (Fall 2014), I have been leading a class of Laurentian University students through Books I-VIII of The Confessions (Penguin Classics edition).  I really have enjoyed working through Augustine’s reflections on the gentle persistence with which God slowly bent his will to the divine will until the last obstacle was that will itself, and how, at the last, it gave way in a garden as the future saint read Paul’s call to lay aside reveling and drunkenness and instead to put on the Lord Jesus. It is a powerful conversion story. Perhaps the paradigmatic conversion story.

The purpose in the syllabus is to look at how Augustine synthesizes Neo-Platonic and Biblical thought, and how this in turn shapes Western thinking on love. Augustine’s synthesis shapes far more than that, of course. But the class is entitled “Ideas of Love,” and treats love as a major philosophical and theological concept in the Western tradition. So that’s what we focus on. (The unstated purpose is, I pray, to get students often with very little or no Christian formation to consider—even as Augustine did—the possibility that becoming a Christian of a traditional sort need not involve embracing absurd doctrines or a finally unsatisfactory way of life).

As I have been doing this at school, I have become fascinated with a fellow blogger, sought-after speaker, radio host, mom to 6 and homeschooler, Jennifer Fulwiler.  I first ran across her on EWTN’s The Journey Home , a programme on which the host, Marcus Grodi, invites people to speak of their conversion to Roman Catholicism. The youtube caption of Fulwiler’s episode was simply, “Jennifer Fulwiler: Former Atheist.”  Well, that caught my attention. I watched the show and wanted to know more. That led to a google search, which turned up her reality series, Minor Revisions. Detailing her fabulously frenetic family life even as she tried to finish up her memoir, the series had my wife and I captivated from the first moments of the first episode. I immediately liked her Facebook page and started watching for a release date. The book’s been out for a while now, but I finally picked it up—and devoured it—a couple of weeks ago.

The long-anticipated memoir is Fulwiler’s own conversion story, summarized on Journey Home and alluded to throughout Minor Revisions. Entitled Something Other than God (Ignatius, 2014), it stands squarely in the Augustinian tradition of conversion stories; indeed, I can’t help but wonder if some of the overlaps are deliberate—the slow clearing away of intellectual misgivings, the recognition that becoming a Christian meant more than intellectual assent to certain truths, but meant becoming a different sort of person, the growing awareness that God was not a concept which one adopted, but the one Person who really matters, the One who had been seeking the seeker from the start.  All these themes are, of course, themes in The Confessions. Even Fulwiler’s title, borrowed from C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, has a decidedly Augustinian ring. Here’s the Lewis quote in full: “[A]ll that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—[is] the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.” Whether the homage to the great North African is deliberate, I cannot say. Whether it is there cannot be doubted. Fulwiler is, among other things, an Augustinian. I hope, should she read this, she takes it as the compliment it is intended to be!

Something Other than God is smart, brash, funny, warm, insightful, and above all, brave. Fulwiler’s conversion comes after a long hard look at the implications of atheism—she quotes Bertrand Russell on the need to build life on a foundation of unyielding despair—from which our functionally atheistic culture seeks always to distract us. It is a conversion that entertains other possibilities. Other religious possibilities are mentioned (though not explored in detail) as part of her story; there is a genuine weighing of options and a real sense of the reality of risk. Not least because Fulwiler’s conversion is entire. She not only signs on for the Church’s teaching on contraception, and all that flows from it, but she does so in the midst of an at-risk pregnancy and the counsel of medical professionals to consider abortion, or at least artificial means of contraception to prevent future pregnancies. Whether or not you end up agreeing with her (or with Rome), you will not be able to deny that her decision was fully and authentically hers. As a woman.

I confess that it is this part of the story that most captivates me, because it is the most foreign to my experience. I’m a married Anglican priest. And here is a woman—whose continued work-life gives the lie to the notion that she is oppressed by the teachings of her church—using the very language of feminism (specifically, about the need for women to control their bodies, and for men to respect that) to defend Paul VI and Humanae Vitae.

No doubt, this will be the place where many will want to press Fulwiler further. If you do, check out her blog, conversiondiary.com.  But before you do, read the book.

Which brings me back to my students. I do hope that some of my students stick with Augustine. And I hope that they’ll ask me for a modern telling of the timeless tale of the restless heart’s attempt to satisfy what only God can. I know where to send them.

Sermon: Be Ready.

Here’s this morning sermon. Let me know what you think. Apparently the comments section on the blog is not working properly at the moment. I am sorry about that. You can leave any thoughts on my fb page for now. Be Ready

Regensburg Revisited (Forthcoming in ChristianWeek)

On September 12, 2006, then Pope Benedict XVI gave a speech at the University of Regensburg, where he was once professor and rector. Entitled, Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections, it quickly became known as “The Islam speech,” for one small portion

Here’s the quote that garnered so much attention: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Benedict was quoting Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus, to illustrate the fundamental incompatibility of violence and conversion. Thus, Benedict continued quoting the Emperor: “Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats… To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death….” (You can read the whole speech here: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2006/september/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20060912_university-regensburg_en.html).

What followed was by every estimation, a media frenzy. Pouncing on Benedict’s alleged intolerance and ignorance of Islam, many of his opponents ignored his big idea: this was a speech about the need for tolerance and steeped in a knowledge of Islam that surpassed the vast majority of those who opined about it.

Here’s what Benedict’s critics missed: this speech was an offer to Muslims to help them find, from within their own tradition, the resources they needed to affirm tolerance, pluralism, and the distinction between faith and civil society. The Catholic Church, said the Pope, had needed almost two centuries to think through these issues, and was in now a place to help accelerate the process in another faith tradition as a result.

Could Benedict have made his point in a less provocative way? In hindsight, no doubt the answer is yes. Could the pundits have actually taken time to read and digest what was said so as to offer informed criticism? Again, of course. Either way though, recent events around the world and in our own country, have vindicated both Benedict and Benedict’s address. For what we are watching unfold in North Africa and the Middle East with increasing alarm is a civil war within Islam that is spilling over into the non-Muslim world because of geopolitical, economic, technological and migratory realities.

The questions driving the conflict are the ones that concerned the previous Pope in his Regensburg address. Will Islam (a faith of 1.1 billion people that resists easy pigeonholing) be able to come to terms with the modern world? Or, will those Muslims who wish instead to enshrine, by armed force, a mythical eighth-century caliphate win? What the Pope offered in his address was a deep meditation on the need for faith (any faith) to be reasonable, and the need for faithful people to commit themselves to reason in faith’s pursuit. What he opposed was a vision of God’s transcendence that severed any connection between God and the world such that God’s “commands” could not, indeed should not, be reasoned through but only obeyed.

The Regensburg speech, then, was the deployment of one tool—the philosophy of religion(s)—in a larger theo-political effort. It is not the only tool. The others include economic, social, political and, yes, military options. This is the struggle that will define the 21st century. It will define our world as the Cold War defined that of our parents. As Benedict well knew, the majority non-Muslim world has a vested interested in hoping that those Muslims arguing from the resources of Islamic faith and tradition for a pluralistic understanding of their faith’s place in the world will carry the day. Any help they can be given should be given.

Morning Prayer, Nov 5 2014. Keeping Sabbath Better

I preached this sermon this morning at Morning Prayer at the St. Clement’s College of Preaching. Would love to hear what you think.


Keeping Sabbath Better

I can still see my 8 year old self at grandma’s house on that Sunday afternoon. For a reason I don’t remember, I was there by myself and my grandmother, by then a widow for six years, fed me Sunday lunch. It was good.

After lunch, I retired to the living room and turned on the TV while grandma did the dishes. I turned to channel 4. CBOT Ottawa. The Rough Riders (the Black and Red kind) were playing the Argos. No sooner had the commentator’s voice filled the room then my grandmother was in front of the TV.

“What are you doing?”

“Watching the game.”

“Do your parents know you do this?”

“I usually watch the game with dad.”

“Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.”

And the TV was turned off. And the TV stayed off. And to this day, I don’t know who won.

I wonder if the synagogue elder who leapt from his seat to chastise Jesus in our Gospel felt like my Grandmother on that Sunday now almost 40 years ago. I think he did.

Why? Why did he feel so strongly that he rose indignantly and rebuked Jesus for not healing her on any other day?

It’s very important, it seems to me, that we get our answer to this question right. Because if we fail to, we’ll get the Gospel wrong. And getting the Gospel wrong can lead to terrible consequences. Hang on. We’ll get there.

The synoptic evangelists all make a point of Jesus healing on the Sabbath. The miracles differ, but the reaction is always the same. The religious leaders upbraid Jesus and Jesus responds that they have lost the meaning of the Sabbath they so rightly longed to protect.

The Sabbath was the hinge that joined the two tables of the law. To keep Sabbath was to keep one’s duty toward God, for it was to honor the day on which God himself rested from the work of creating (this is the rationale given in Exodus). To keep Sabbath was to live within the rhythm God had inscribed on the fabric of the universe. If one kept Sabbath, one would naturally also worship only God, worship without idols, and revere God’s name.

At the same time, to keep Sabbath was to keep one’s duty toward one’s brothers and sisters in the human family. For to keep Sabbath was to say, I was once a slave who worked 7 days a week. Now as a rescued child of God, I will keep one day in which I will not work and I will not require anyone else to work for me (this is the rationale given in the book of Deuteronomy). And from the reverence thus offered to all human beings, the rest of the commandments followed: honor your father and mother, do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not covet your neighbor’s goods.

To keep Sabbath was to keep faith with God and to keep faith the community. To keep Sabbath was to keep the whole of the law.

So it was that by the time of Jesus, elaborate case law about how to keep, or not keep, the Sabbath had grown up. And Jesus broke the case law. Jesus healed. And indignation ensued. That’s why the synagogue ruler was enraged.

Now, why does that matter? It matters because it reveals to us that Jesus, even if he broke the case law, did not break the Sabbath. He kept it. He disclosed its deep meaning. The Sabbath was the sign of the life-giving God of the Exodus. It was proof of his presence among the people. God’s people lived like God—they kept Sabbath. God’s people were no longer slaves—they kept Sabbath. God’s people were to find life on the Sabbath—so Jesus healed the woman bent over. He kept the Sabbath by giving life on that day. By freeing a woman imprisoned by a spirit. By freeing her to worship God.

That means, first, that the problem we encounter here is not the Sabbath. No. The Sabbath is not the problem. The problem is the accretion of religious life that keeps people from the God of the Sabbath by transforming the Sabbath from something joyful and life giving into something that keeps people in bondage.

There is no Gospel, there is no good news, in saying to someone crushed by sin, bent over by a spirit, we will heal you tomorrow. Today is Sabbath. Continue in your bondage.

This Gospel exposes the barrier that religion sometimes erects between the people and the Gospel, between the people and God. And Jesus, by healing the woman, removes the barrier. In so doing, he keeps Sabbath far better than the synagogue ruler.

That Jesus kept Sabbath while healing the woman means second, that exhorting someone to break Sabbath is not a solution; it is not salvation. Many Christians have a difficult relationship with the Law, with the Old Testament, and with the God who produced both. I know I do. Do you? Oh we are not full blown Marcionites—followers of that second century teacher so drunk on Paul that he refusedto acknowledge  the Hebrew Scriptures as part of the Christian canon of Scripture, So drunk on Paul that he eliminated three of the four Gospels as too Jewish, and even had to edit the letters of his hero to remove any hint of law over grace. No we’re not Marcionites. But we—well, maybe not you, but this is true of me–I do rejoice when we read in Paul that Jesus has abolished the law with its demands, and I wince and engage in hermeneutical acrobatics when I hear Jesus say, I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it.

And, rejoicing in Paul, sometimes we might be tempted to say that the Law is gone. It’s over. If it was revelation at all, it is revelation that is passed and surpassed by the new revelation. Jesus puts the law away for good.

But in the light of today’s Gospel, I wonder if that’s kind of like saying to the woman bent over, “Don’t worry. The Sabbath command is no longer binding you. Today is just like any other day. Continue in your bondage.” And just like the synagogue ruler in his legalism, but for the very opposite reason, in our license, we leave the poor woman bent double. We abandon her, still unable to stand up straight. Unable to worship.

But what does Jesus do? He doesn’t lay another burden of Sabbath observance upon the woman as the synagogue ruler might. He does not condemn her. He doesn’t offer a solution that leaves her situation unchanged as we might be tempted to do. He doesn’t announce a Gospel that changes nothing. He, instead, heals her. He offers Good News that changes everything.

Woman, says the old King James Version, Thou Art Loosed!  Jesus speaks words of healing to this daughter of Abraham. He speaks powerful words of exorcism to the spirit that keeps her low. And she straightens up. DO you see that spine stiffening? That pelvis tilting? The knees and hips reorienting? The shoulders ramrod straight? And she worships. Can you see her hands raised? Can you hear her voice praising God? What is her response to the healing word of grace? She does not flee from the Sabbath, but embraces it as the gift which the mighty Exodus God intended. Freed from the spirit, she can stand up straight. She can live in agreement with the fabric of creation. Freed from the binding spirit, she can worship God and live without compelling others to wait on her. She can life as one who is a slave no longer. As a woman who is free.  Freed from the binding spirit, she can now keep Sabbath, too.

This is healing Jesus is the Jesus to whom John the Baptist in Matthias Grunewald’s Eisenheim Altarpiece with his abnormally long index finger, points. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the World. This is the Jesus that my grandmother knew and loved down to her bones, even if her zeal was a little too zealous at times. This is the Jesus whom we have been called to proclaim to our people, Sunday by Sunday, as we preach to them. A Jesus who, by his cross and mighty resurrection, frees us to form us by the Spirit into a people healed and whole. A people upright and open to worship. A people who long to, and are fit to, enter the Sabbath rest promised to the people of God.

“Woman! Thou art loosed.” Those are Gospel words. Those are Sabbath words. Those, in the grace of God, are the words we are sent to proclaim.


The Call to Holiness: All Saints’ Day, 2014

This weekend, we celebrated the Feast of All Saints and welcomed Brook, Mia in to the family of God through the sacrament of baptism. Here is the sermon from today: The Call to Holiness

Pulpit: Proclaiming the story

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.”