It’s a truism in my trade that one negative comment about the sermon can pretty much ruin your Sunday. We preachers position ourselves at a sanctuary door or in front of the chancel to greet the members of our congregation after worship, many if not most of whom tell us that they liked or enjoyed or appreciated our sermon. The rest smile and say, “Good morning.”
It is generally not a good idea to refer to one’s children in sermon or print, but I’ve concluded that when it comes to grandchildren, such rules are suspended. Rachel goes to Cardinal Bernardin School in Chicago, and as her mother was putting her to bed one night last year during Advent, she asked Rachel if she had learned any new songs at school recently.
It’s a cliché to observe that since September 11 we are living in a different world, that everything seems different now. But it is true. I heard Harvard’s Peter Gomes say recently that things sound different now. Phrases read and spoken for thousands of years suddenly sound immediate, as if they were written last week for us.
My brother was the first to call. We chatted about Barry Bonds: What justice is there in his going four for 27 in the 1991 play-offs as a Pittsburgh Pirate (our favorite team as young fans), and then, as a San Francisco Giant, hitting 73 home runs, four of them in his last six times at bat? Suddenly my brother let me have it. “Are you sure it was the Second Inaugural?” he asked.
This preacher was grateful for the lectionary during September. I often argue with the choices of texts for particular Sundays. But when the events of September 11 replaced all other agendas, including my carefully planned preaching topics, I turned to the lectionary with gratitude.
We must not expect our nation’s wound to heal quickly: It is too deep and the pain is too profound. We Americans expect instant healing. “Let’s put it behind us—get over it—get on with life,” we say, as if it were inappropriate to allow tragedy to be tragic for more than a day or two.
At the end of summer my mother would launch her annual canning process. She retrieved large Ball jars from the cellar, sterilized them in boiling water and sealed tomatoes, beans and rhubarb from Dad’s garden into them. The food would appear on our dinner table throughout the winter.
For most pastors, the question of how the church should relate to the state and to the society and culture around it arises in a very mundane way—in the form of a phone call asking you to deliver an invocation at a meeting of the city council or the PTA, or at a school sports banquet. Whenever this happens, I agonize a bit about it. Should I baptize a secular event with a little piety?
The intersection of religion, government and social needs is where this journal has positioned itself throughout its history, so I accepted an invitation from the Aspen Institute to listen in on a discussion of the Bush administration’s faith-based initiative.
My instructor in Sabbath-keeping was not a professor or a spiritual director, but a foreman at the East Chicago Inland Steel plant named Mike Paddock. His wife was the treasurer of the tiny congregation I served as a student pastor, and she wrote my salary check twice a month.
In Undaunted Courage, Stephen Ambrose describes the pivotal day when Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and their tiny band of explorers sent their large keel boat back down the river to St. Louis. The boat had carried all of their supplies, weapons and ammunition. It had served as a secure refuge from attack. Now it was gone and they were headed west, toward the Pacific Ocean, alone.
I love the story of the four men who carry their paralyzed friend to see Jesus and can’t get close because of the crowd. Undeterred, they carry him to the roof and lower him right into the middle of the crowd to the feet of Jesus.
When I think of the people who have had a special impact on my life, who were catalysts in my formation, I think especially of Joseph Sittler. Sittler was professor of theology on the Federated Theological Faculty and at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. Before I got there, I had never heard of him.
Recently I made my third trip to Rome. My purpose this time was to participate in the Presbyterians’ ongoing conversation with the Vatican on the subject of the papacy—a conversation that grew out of Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Ut Unum Sint, which invited Protestants to discuss how the bishop of Rome might exercise his position to serveChristian unity.
A week or so after President Bush assured the nation that education would continue to be one of his top priorities and that no child would be left behind, I had an extended conversation with the principal of an elementary school in the middle of Cabrini-Green. Cabrini is the housing project on the near north side of Chicago. Constructed in the ’60s, Cabrini once housed 20,000 people.
Many years ago, when I was struggling to balance the demands of divinity school and the need to produce a weekly sermon for a congregation that sat patiently and graciously through the efforts of its student pastor, I turned regularly to a little book with a catchy title, Your God Is Too Small, by J. B. Phillips.
I once told a story from the pulpit about road rage that evoked as much response as anything I have ever said. I told about being in the left lane on Michigan Avenue and needing to move to the center lane and then the right lane in order to make a right turn at Chestnut. Simultaenously, a young woman in a BMW was moving from the far right lane to the center.
Jesse Jackson is a complicated man. He has been right on most issues most of the time, though certainly not all the time. No one is more eloquent on the topic of human rights, and no one more personally committed to the cause of justice for minority and marginalized people.
Calendar purists insist that only now are we entering the 21st century, since 2000 was really the final year of the 20th century. Whichever it is, I entered this new year thinking a lot about the fractious divisiveness that seems so evident everywhere in the world, and about its reverse, the precious but fragile unity of the human family.