What I Learned in a Decade
Text: Isaiah 55:10-12
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
February 26, 2012
Today, after Worship, we are having lunch and a party next door. If I say that I learned ‘nothing’ in the last decade, we could end Worship early and go have fun. That would be a bad idea, on one hand, because when people come to Worship, they expect to actually have a Worship Service, but additionally, it would be very untrue. I have learned a good deal in the last decade, some of which I’d like to share with you this morning.
In many ways the most critical role a pastor plays is as a preacher. Preaching is a 15 minute event on Sunday mornings to the average person. For those of us who are ministers, and who take preaching seriously, preaching is the most time consuming thing we do each week. It requires reading, praying, thinking, feeling, and writing. A professor at Lancaster Theological Seminary, in a sermon, once said that theologians think about everything all the time. That is acutely accurate and pretty much summarized preaching. Life is one long sermon illustration.
In today’s scripture, from Second Isaiah, the prophet is speaking about preaching from God’s perspective. God sends rain and snow down from Heaven to water the earth. That water does not return until the earth has been nourished and brings forth plants which generate the energy that puts moisture back in the air. Today’s choir anthem is based on this text and it is my favorite anthem of all. It is a powerful statement about preaching. Preaching means something.
Eugene Peterson in his book, The Pastor: A Memoir tells a wonderful story about his son, Leif.
Leif said to him one day: Novelists only write one book. They find their voice, their book, and write it over and over. William Faulkner wrote one book. Charles Dickens wrote one book. Anne Tyler wrote one book. Ernest Hemingway wrote one book. Willa Cather wrote one book.” I wasn’t quite sure I agreed, but he obviously knew more about the subject than I did, so I didn’t say much. A few days later, he said, “Remember what I said about novelists only writing one book? You only preach one sermon.” I protested. “I don’t repeat myself in the pulpit. I work hard on these sermons. Every week is new, the world changes, the lives of these people are changing constantly. And each sermon is new, these scriptures personalized into their language and circumstances. I live with these scriptures; I live with these people. My sermon is a way for them to hear their stories integrated into God’s story, or God’s story integrated into their stories. Either way it’s a story in the making—new details every week, new in the telling, new in the making.”.
Not long after that, after Worship, they were having lunch and Leif said:
“Well, Dad, that was your sermon. I’ve been listening to that sermon all my life. Your one sermon, your signature sermon.”
When they were taking their son back to the airport his son said he was changing churches as he was tired of the church he was attending. About three months later they asked him if he had found a new church and his response was, ““No. I tried a bunch of them but I’m back at First Church. None of those other pastors had found their sermon.” After his son told him this, Peterson got it, he understood.
The art of preaching, I think, for most of us, is finding that sermon. Not all that long ago I was thinking that there are things I say a lot, themes that run through many of my sermons. I was not able to articulate what that was until someone shared what Peterson had said, and until I read this section in Peterson’s book. One of the things I’ve learned in the last decade about preaching was this. I found my sermon.
The second thing I have learned is the spiritual gift of hospitality.
In traditions shaped by the Bible, hospitality is a moral imperative. There is an expectation that God’s people are people who will welcome strangers and treat them justly and well runs throughout the entire Bible. This theme begins in Genesis and runs through every book of the Bible in a variety of ways. Calling ourselves a people of God demands that we offer hospitality.
St. Marks has taught me about the gift of hospitality in ways that I never saw before.
In my first church, a congregation where I received 10 years experience in 19 months, there was a festival called Hartslog Day that took place every year. My church was on the main road in a downtown with only two roads. Right next door to our church was a United Methodist Church. There was a debate in the Church Council about having our doors open so people could use the rest room. There was one over-riding question in the room: What were the Methodists doing? If they were keeping their doors open, we’d have to so as not to look too bad. If they were staying locked, we could. The goal of the group was to keep the building closed.
I was furious and argued that it didn’t matter what any other church in town was doing. We had to do the right thing because it was the right thing. They argued back that all their visitors would run up the water bill and may steal the bathroom tissue.
It turned out the church next door was more hospitable than our church was so the doors were kept open. Several years ago when withdrew from the United Church of Christ because they felt the denomination was too welcoming. Hospitality was something that church struggled with. Actually, gaining 10 years experience in 19 months demonstrates there were other struggles as well.
St. Marks, on the other hand, demonstrates incredible hospitality. When we made a concerted effort to assure everyone was welcome, people left. That was difficult on everyone, but people hung together. Hospitality is a spiritual discipline we do not take lightly, even if it means we have had bathroom tissue stolen and higher water bills.
Yesterday was the Neighborhood Health Fair. Hundreds of people came and were treated with dignity and respect and were served in a variety of ways. It was hard to do, but Hospitality is a spiritual discipline we do not take lightly.
Our Clothes Closet is now up the road as our renovation is taking place. With the help of Central Christian Church, we are able to keep this ministry going. Hospitality is a spiritual discipline we do not take lightly.
The Soup Kitchen is moving across the street next week as our renovations keep going forward. We cannot stop feeding the hungry as Hospitality is a spiritual discipline we do not take lightly.
While I have always understood the importance of hospitality, St. Marks has made me realize who crucial it is as a spiritual discipline.
Hospitality is often confused as being about rules as to how to do things. Do we shake hands well? Offer coffee? Greet people nicely? All of these things are important, but they are not the core of hospitality. Hospitality is a spiritual discipline that is a way of being.
One of the core things in Judaism is the Law, but often people don’t realize that the concept of Jewish Law was not so much about the rules, but about a way of being. The Hebrew word for law is Halakhah which is translated as either a way of being of a path that one walks. It is not translated as RULES, but attitude.
I believe this has been something we have learned together. Keeping one’s rest rooms open or welcoming people comes from a way of being, a path a church is on more than a set of rules for hospitality.
In the recent newspaper article by Dale Moss about our Clothes Closet he said that we were a smaller church with the heart of a mega-church and that is because of the heart of hospitality that drives us. It is something we have grown into together.
So these are two things I have learned in a decade. It is about finding my sermon and growing together in a spirit of hospitality.
If you’ve been here a long time you’ll know that there is usually always a third thing. But this time, in this sermon, the third point is going to be left blank. It will be for all that we have to learn from one another in the future.