The Rev. Canon Michael Wyatt, Ph.D.
A while back someone else preached here and then received a letter denouncing his sermon. The author of the letter did not want “to listen to personal opinions dumped on a captive audience,” and added, “the pulpit is no place for politics.” So today, I intend to wonder out loud what we are about in these moments between Gospel and Creed. In one sense, I agree with the letter writer: if preaching is ‘personal opinions dumped on a captive audience,’ I don’t want any part of that either.
So, to say the most important thing first: if any of you here feel you are being held against your will, please stand up and leave—unless you are with your parents and are underage. But if you are on your own, and feel trapped here, then, for the good of your soul, walk out now. Go where you will know the freedom and power and dignity God intends for each human being. If religion is a prison for you, shake it off. Better you should enter the Reign of God stumbling and half-blind as a godless secular humanist, than that you should writhe entire in the hell of your resentment, with two sound eyes with which you never see and strong limbs that you never stretch on behalf of others and a joyful spiritual path that you never walk.
As for this matter of dumping personal opinion—my personal opinion is that the last thing good sermons are is a personal opinion. They are the occasions when congregation and preacher share accountability for their place in a vast web of faithfulness. Being Episcopalian, I say in sermons we reflect on life through Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, accountable to all three. Even if I start with my personal opinion, Scripture probes its truth, Tradition tests its realism, and Reason weighs its plausibility.
Just as I hope to fashion what I say in their light, so you must assess what I say in their light. I who speak and you who listen test a sermon by whether or not it takes into account the height of Scripture, the breadth of Tradition, and the depth of Reason. My charge is faithfully to proclaim the Good News, but your charge is faithfully to discern the Good News. Though preacher and congregation are accountable to each other, the far deeper truth is that we are accountable to what we together received from our forbearers in faith: the Word of God, the trajectory of the People of God, and the creative probing freedom that makes us the Image of God. This is a long way from whether I like what I say or feel good about it; I hope to operate by higher standards than that. But so should you have higher standards than whether or not you like what I say or feel good about it.
Neither you nor I is the point. Our gathering together around this altar places all of us before the one who was God’s Word incarnate. Everything we say is brought before the one who found his place in Scripture, willingly took on what he read there, and said finally, “my body is given for you.” Our mutual accountability to Scripture, Tradition, and Reason is really only willingness to be mutually in the presence of the one who said, “the greatest is the servant of all, and I am among you as one who serves,” and who urged us to do what we saw him do, empowering us to know God as he knew God, as a tender Father. If I have any claim to know any truth, it is weighed by that presence. Nor do I admit that you have any other standard by which to judge what I say than the words of the one who gave himself for us.
Now, some might think that this limits sermons to institutionally authorized narrow repetitions of what has already been better said by others, somewhat like a tiger pacing back and forth in a cage—though if that is the case, I repeat that you and I are pacing side by side contemplating escape. But the scope of religion by definition is all of life, not the desiccations of the past. Religion is a view of totality; that is its curse and its blessing. The goal of any religion is to enable us to deal with all of life. We know the dangers here: total claims can become absolute claims—if we have made a claim about all of life, what more remains to be said? There are always those who see such claims as bids to power. Some will see the photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope and shudder with tears of awe at how huge and beautiful it all is; others will be busy numbering galaxies, whose glee at how we are extending our reach is only astronomical gluttony. If the scope of religion is all of life, then we ought to wonder how those things that do not fit our expectations can be received, so nothing is left outside Christian life and the praise of God.
Consider Scripture. Everything is there, from forgiveness, heroism, and compassion, to incest, blood-lust, and greed, from purity laws to erotic poems, from Job to Jesus, from a nostalgic garden to a beautiful city, goal of all our desire. If Scripture is our guide, nothing is off limits to a sermon.
Consider Tradition. This is more than the transmission of practice and interpretation. Tradition is the cultural and structural expression of Christian religion, whose glorious history is entangled with horrifying triumphalism and abuse entered into with the best intentions. God is not honored by our beatific blind-spots. Acts of atrocity and acts of compassion have both been claimed for God. What has been done in God’s name, over which God has been invoked as blessing, is legitimate for us to illuminate in a sermon.
Consider Reason. Human reason is not barred from any topic. We are limited only by our conceptual abilities. Only useless preaching would deliberately refuse to notice psychological and social and scientific developments—as if reason could roam free in the secular realm, but must be bound in religion! To crawl up to the jagged edges of understanding, where we can take off in the flight of faith—what better goal for a sermon?
I say again, we gather here in the presence of One who for himself refused no dimension of what is human, even to death on a cross. We gather here to feed on the Lamb we slaughtered, who nevertheless lives, and who returns into our midst as forgiveness. It is no surprise that we do not want to know our violence and our mendacity, but we cannot gather as Catholic Christians without hearing the story of Jesus’ betrayal and restoration, feasting on what we killed, because only as we take that in, seeing the body we still rend, do we receive the living forgiveness that frees us and finally enables us to change. Now, the inability to recognize His presence here is indistinguishable from the refusal to acknowledge those on whose exclusion our society is built. If you cannot see Him, you will not be able to see them. This double blinding is not worthy of your calling. Denying violence and picking through reality for acceptable sermon material are the same thing. We cannot deny what we are and receive forgiveness at the same time. We recall the slaughter of Jesus to remember who we are, and we can do so because He stands in our midst, restored and forgiving. And we, already forgiven, can then tell the truth he gives us grace to see and to confess.
Having said that, in a sermon, neither you nor I are merely indulging personal opinions nor are we captive, since we are mutually accountable to Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, and within those find that we have access to every topic—having said all this, I see that Amos must be my text today.
Christians are no longer huddled refugees, the flotsam of society snagging together to become a new household, a group so fragile, however enthusiastic, that political power was out of the question. Christians today are more like the Northern Kingdom of Israel, where Amos preached, than we are like those who discovered the Christian Way two thousand years ago.
Your challenge and mine, as we listen to Amos, is to determine with whom we identify. Amos saw the nation judged by the plumb line of God. God showed Amos the standard by which God measures, and Amos was left silenced. Amos must then have turned to the people and described this vision, because instantly we hear that Amaziah, the chief priest of the national shrine, not only accuses Amos of conspiracy to the king, he says to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”
You see where we are today: in a “temple of the kingdom.” I, like Amos, like every preacher who ever stands here, must say, “I am no prophet, but the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy.’” I make no claim to personal, or even professional, opinions that are worth your hearing. But I do claim that I must pay close attention to what God has said in Scripture, and I do claim that I am morally obligated to come clean with you about what I find there, even knowing that I fall far short of it, as you also probably know you do.
When we together look at this text, we must be very honest about which of the two figures we find ourselves inclining to identify with: Amos or Amaziah? If we find ourselves inclining to believe nothing political must be mentioned here in this place, because it is a “king’s sanctuary, a great church for national purposes, a temple of the kingdom, and a national house of prayer for all people,” then we will find that we have aligned ourselves, not with the prophet, but with those who suppress prophets in an abusive consolidation of imperial power. The plumb line will show us listing. That is not where I want to end up. So that leaves us considering what it means to incline towards Amos and his clear condemnation of those who deceive and grind their brothers down into the dust to cushion their accumulated leisure. And certainly one thing is true: whether or not you believe trampling the poor precipitates ruin and exile, you cannot deny that suppressing dissent and refusing the truth and resenting all warnings brings down catastrophe.
Should we rather have mendacity be the membership requirement? Should we rather lie to belong? Are we to find that what claims to give our life meaning is nothing more than an elaborate structure of interlocking mutual deceptions? If your answer to that is yes, if you prefer religion as a reinforcement of your sense of being right at whatever cost to others and to yourself, go where you will find what you wish were true fed back to you in predigested lumps. You are not captive. I’ll use Amaziah’s words: “flee!”
That is the excruciating ontological pain we are trapped in. What I mean is this: when we put our hand next to our heart, the panic between the beats we feel there is our inability to know if anything spiritual is real. Is there spiritual bedrock or only wishful thinking? Are we hallucinating because we have spent too much time in the dark? If the latter is the case, since one delusion is as good as any other, we may as well pick the story that reinforces our power and seals off our pain. But I don’t believe that.
But sermons can only comfort when they tell the truth, because the day will come—as it came to doomed Samaria where Amos spoke—when each of us will truly need comfort, because reality has closed its jaws on us. When on that day, we stretch out our hands for help, we will grasp the difference between placid collusion and the compassion that recognizes suffering; and we will want to truth. But that’s only my personal opinion.
May the one God comfort us with priceless truth and strengthen us to praise God with courage, until the day we praise the Trinity with joy forever.