So, this weekend I was fortunate enough to be on a residential weekend with a group of other Readers (Licensed Lay Ministers) in training. The purpose of the weekend was to look at crafting a sermon, the art of preaching, and how we can continue proclaim the Good News afresh in this and every generation.
It was great to be able to get together with others on the same journey, and reassuring to know that our Diocese takes our training and our responsibility seriously.
If you’ve read any of my blog before, you’ll know that I’m not new to preaching (thanks to my lovely Vicar having let me loose on the congregation at various points over the past couple of years!). But what this weekend did was remind me of the responsibility that we all bear as Christ’s representatives on earth. It reassured me that I appear to be doing something right. And it reaffirmed my reasons for training as a Reader (because let me tell you it’s not without its difficulties).
Anyway, one of the things we had to do was write a homily. A homily is pretty much like a mini sermon – something like ‘Thought for the Day’ on Radio 4, or ‘Pause for Thought’ on Radio 2, but lasting about five minutes. My average sermon length is nine minutes, so you might think that writing one that lasts less time would be pretty easy. Turns out, it’s not! It can often take longer to craft a shorter message, because you’ve got to be a lot more brutal in what you put in and what you leave out. Oh and added that, we were told at 11.00 am yesterday that we would be delivering our homilies (to be peer assessed no less) that same day. At 4pm. Not only did we have to pick a set of readings from the next week (which therefore took a chunk out of actual preparation of message time), but we also had to make sure we did something much more important…eat lunch! So in all we probably had about four hours to put together something that we felt would be ‘good’ enough to stand up and talk about in front of everyone.
I am astounded to say that we all managed not only to craft our homilies, but to get them in at the five minute mark. And there was some seriously good stuff in there. For a number of people on the weekend, they had never done any formal preaching before – and to them I doff my cap!
Anyway, in the absence of transcripts of anyone else’s homily, and because people seemed to enjoy mine, I present it here now. Although I chose to aim it at the ‘audience’ before me that day (ie people training for licensed ministry in the church) I hope you enjoy it, and I hope that some of it may ring true for you, particularly if you are involved in some way in reaching others for Christ. Which in a way I suppose we all are. I think it’s really amazing what God can do with a person, a list of readings, and a Bible. Because I tell you this, I couldn’t have done this alone. To God be the glory!
The readings I used for the homily were taken from Sunday 27th January and the main service of the day. And they were:
- First reading
- Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
- Psalm 19
- Second reading
- 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
- Luke 4:14-21
Yes, I thought ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ and had a go at referencing them all!
I began with a prayer:
“Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”
“What in God’s name am I doing here?” That’s the question I asked myself a mere five hours ago as I sat down with my lectionary, my Bible, and a pen and paper. Now I’m not a betting woman, but I suspect most of us here will have experienced similar thoughts if not today, then fairly recently.
Today’s Gospel reading recounts Jesus beginning his preaching and teaching ministry. In verse 15 we hear that:
“He began to teach in the synagogues and was praised by everyone.”
Now that’s quite a claim…praised by everyone! I guess the Dave Walker cartoon we saw this morning [it depicted various members of the congregation with their wildly varying views on the sermon] may have been lost on Jesus at that point!
And of course later on in the reading, Jesus recites from the scroll about the Spirit of the Lord and anointing being upon him. So it’s an auspicious start. Of course we know what will come to pass as Jesus’ life and ministry continue. But I wonder, did Jesus ever think:
“What in God’s name am I doing here?” Well I kind of suppose he might have done. Because we know that, although Jesus was fully divine, he was fully human too. And though he may not have sinned, he must have had moments when he wondered “What am I doing?”. We know from his prayer in Gethsemane that he wondered if there might be an alternative to God’s plan for him. So uncertainty, I think, was a part of his life.
And so, I think, it is with us. I know my own journey to Reader training has often caused me to wonder what I am doing. And perhaps nowhere does that feel more particularly pronounced, than when preparing to preach. As we have discussed this weekend, it is a privilege and a responsibility to have the opportunity to share our faith publicly. And preaching it can feel overwhelming.
So with that in mind, I just want just want to refer to two other portions of scripture which make up today’s readings. The first is taken from the New Testament Epistle (or letter) and is found in verse 28:
“And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers…”
I don’t think these are listed in any order of preference, but it is certainly reassuring to see that not only are we appointed, but that we are appointed by God.
And what has God appointed us to do? Well, I can’t answer specifically for every person, but I do find it interesting that our Old Testament reading (from Nehemiah) contains these words:
“So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”
They gave the sense, so that the people understood the meaning. And you know I think that’s really helpful. For us, as preachers of the Word, we’re here to help people make sense of the Word. We don’t need to trot out dissertations in the pulpit. We don’t need to worry about a Bishop on the back row. We don’t need to worry about the Biblical ‘expertise’ of others. What we are doing here, in God’s name, is thinking about what God has said, or done, and helping people apply that to their lives now.
I began by using some words from Psalm 19 (which happens to be the Psalm set for today). In that, the psalmist asks that the words that come from him, be acceptable to God. And I would like to end by sharing the words which Jesus spoke when he read from the scroll, as recounted in our Gospel reading. But as I read, please listen out for the word ‘me’. And when you hear it, don’t think about ‘me, (the preacher)’, or even Jesus. Instead, apply the word ‘me’ to yourself, and see how that makes you feel.
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
The Lord has anointed me, and he has anointed you also. Amen.