Choose your words carefully if you preach to the people back home. Those who knew you will remember things that make many messages seem odd. Prophetic moralizing, for example, would sound hypocritical coming from most folks in such circumstances.
My grandmother was 14 years old and living on a farm in Michigan when she made an appointment with her Presbyterian minister to tell him that she felt called to the ministry. “I’m sorry, Emma,” he said. “You must be mistaken. God doesn’t call women into the ministry.” A day or two later her father went to see the minister.
Soon after I was called as senior minister of First Congregational Church in Burlington, Vermont, a church member gave me a tour of the building. When we got to the formal church parlor, I paused to take in the portraits of my predecessors hanging on the walls. I was awestruck. “There they are,” I said.
“Brothers and sisters, if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. Let us therefore join our hearts together in prayer. . . .”
With these words, I invite my congregation into a spirit of confession week after week. To some extent it works: everyone dutifully bows, prays, holds silence, sings a contemplative chorus and rises for the words of assurance.
In one of the most famous sermons ever delivered, John Donne described the challenge of retaining concentration during prayer. The year was 1626. The occasion was the funeral sermon for Sir William Cockayne.
When a child is ignoring basic responsibilities, parents rely on a well-known parenting technique to make a point. Mom looks her ten-year-old in the eye while holding a toothpaste tube in one hand and the cap in the other. “This is called toothpaste,” she says, “and this is called a cap. They go together.” The Lord God is not beyond impatience and remedial instruction when people need a reminder about neglected responsibilities. God held a basket of ripened summer fruit beneath Amos’s nose and said, “Amos, what do you see here?” The prophet, sensing that God was serious, didn’t bother joking. “A basket of summer fruit,” he replied. With that brief exchange, strangely similar to a parent remedially instructing a child, the doors opened to a flood of divine wrath.
In 1 Kings, the storyteller sets the scene simply. Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. We have already been told a lot. We know that Naboth calls this beautiful valley home, that its name defines him and that he is Naboth the Jezreelite.
As we struggle to stay alert to the constant demands of the needy, we pastors sometimes forget that we take for granted others in our congregations who seem strong and whole. This applies particularly to those men and women whom we instinctively count on as the backbone or the core of the congregation.
Not surprisingly, given that they are selected for Trinity Sunday, today’s texts point to God-in-three. The good news is that the juxtapositions seem organic, a legitimate highlighting of multiple aspects of the divine.