This article first appeared in our parish newsletter. To read the rest of The View and learn about what's happening at St. John's, Decatur, click here.
A few years ago, I stopped using a manuscript when I preach. It felt risky at first. What happens if I climb into the pulpit and forget everything? What if I say something that I did not mean or forget something that I meant to say? Well, all of those things have already happened, and, of course, the Holy Spirit was faithful even when I failed. I still write out a text each week, which you can read online, but I leave that text in my office and, more or less, preach from memory the sermon that I worked on during the week. I do not memorize the exact words that I have written, but most of them come through anyway. Occasionally, however, something substantial pops out of my mouth that I did not expect to say. Sometimes I am delighted at the unanticipated proclamation, but other times I am quite disappointed in myself.
One of those discouraging moments occurred a month ago, when I preached on Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead. In short, I proclaimed that, by calling his friend back from the grave, Jesus showed us that he came to earth to save us from death itself. To make that point through contrast, somewhere in the middle of that sermon, I rattled off a list of things that Jesus did not come to earth to accomplish, like making you happy or rich or healthy. I recall that at that moment I felt great energy and momentum, and my list of things too small for Jesus’ to have accomplished grew until I said aloud that “Jesus did not come to earth so that you would have a place to go on Sunday mornings.”
Uh oh. I did not mean that. I had not written it. I had not even considered it. It just popped out. By the time I got to, “Jesus did not come to earth so that you would have a place…” I knew that I was in trouble. And, in the unrehearsed moment, I finished the statement in the best way I could think of, but “…to go on Sunday mornings” was not what I meant to say. As the rest of the sermon tumbled out of my mouth, a part of my mind replayed those unexpected words, and I considered on the fly what I could do about it. Did I really say that? Do I believe that? Is that right? If not, can I stop now and go back and undo it? Since by that point I was in the middle of my last paragraph, I left it unresolved, deciding not to retrace my steps and hoping, perhaps, that no one noticed.
But people did notice—at least one of them did. After church, someone told me that that particular line was her favorite part of the whole sermon. (Of course it was!) I had not intended to preach a sermon about the unravelling of our Sunday-morning traditions, but that seemed to be the sermon that she had heard. It was too late. I nodded and said thank you and tried to move on to another conversation lest anyone else ask me about my careless theology.
And now, a month later, if I had to do it all over again, I would, without a doubt, put those exact words back into the sermon and let them ring in our ears and in our hearts because, indeed, I do believe that Jesus Christ did not come to earth so that we would have a place to go on Sunday mornings. Jesus’ birth and life and death and resurrection are about something far more important than going to church. As Michael Curry, our Presiding Bishop, has said more times than any of us can count, Jesus did not come to start a church; he came to start a movement. And, if we think that the focus of Christianity is what takes place within the four walls that surround us during our weekly worship, we dishonor not only the gospel of Jesus Christ but also the innumerable witnesses to the gospel’s power who lived and died believing that that good news has the power to transform the world and, in fact, bring the dead to life.
Why does St. John’s exist? Why do we show up? Why do we pledge our money and offer our time? Why do we have a budget? Why do we employ a rector and a curate and the rest of our staff? If the only reason we could think of is to have a place to go on Sunday mornings, our congregation would have shuttered its doors a long time ago. Instead, we come to church—we are a church—because the gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to bring life to this world. Our time together on Sunday mornings is a statement of our desire to a part of that Jesus movement both as a congregation and as individuals, and, if we have lost touch with that truth, we must reclaim it with urgency.
Everything we do must be about the gospel. Everything we say must be gospel truth. Every penny we spend on programs and personnel and power bills must be for the sharing of God’s good news with the world. That must be true for St. John’s, and it must also be true for each of us. We are all evangelists. We have good news to share, and Jesus is calling us to share it. Do not let your faith be contained within an hour or two on Sunday mornings. If Jesus has the power to bring you from death into life, that transformation cannot be limited to a weekly appointment. It must consume your whole identity. It must become your way of life. That means that, as a Christian, you must become a part of the Jesus Movement and not just someone who shows up on Sundays.