Yesterday my congregation and I embarked on a new kind of scriptural exploration in this first Second Sunday liturgy of the new program year. I’ve labeled it “Sunday Morning at the Improv”, which might not be totally accurate but is nonetheless a catchy-sounding title. Unlike the usual one-person pulpit sermon – which I am resisting the urge to call “stand-up”, though it often feels that way, humorous or not – this effort involves everybody (or at least the portion of “everybody” willing to speak up).I decide in advance which of the readings we’ll focus on, but I don’t tell the congregation until the sermon time begins. I then ask what words or phrases stand out to them in that particular passage. The idea is to take the first three or so suggestions, although Jesus’ use of the word “hate” in yesterday’s gospel pretty much knocked out everything else.
And then we began. What did they want to know? I asked. What comments did they have? They really got into it. Did Jesus really mean “hate” or is that hyperbole? What if he really meant it? He couldn’t have meant it, not the Jesus we know. Is this a judgment on those who choose not to follow Jesus, or just a warning to those who do that they’ve got to be in 110%? What’s this got to do with building construction and armies? We even compared the message of this gospel to the use of the sorting hat in the Harry Potter series. I was prepared to guide the conversation and did so when necessary. I expect about 25% of those present – including some fairly new members and youth – offered at least one comment or question.
When time was running out I reminded them that we were ending, but not necessarily concluding, and encouraged them to give it more thought when they got home. I could tell they liked it, even those who chose not to speak up.
If there’s a fourth wall in the church, it’s nowhere more evident than in the way most sermons are delivered. I think members of a congregation like to know that their clergy value their thoughts on scripture, and trust their insights. I believe it’s good for people who share a worship space on Sunday mornings (or any other time, for that matter) to know that we trust what they believe and think and have to say. And it’s good for them to hear from one another. I don’t intend to give up the more traditional sermon style – as I said, this is once a month - but so often, as a preacher, I look out at the faces in the congregation and wonder if I’m doing all I can to help them engage with the wonderful story of our faith. It’s both good and fun to see them doing that with one another.