This past Sunday I gave a talk at church on the Apostle Paul’s visit to Athens as recorded in the seventeenth chapter of the New Testament book of the “Acts of the Apostles”. This is the fourth time I’ve spoken at church in the past two years or so. I had a little fun with my talk by trying to summarize the book of Acts as if it was tv series, which I punned by calling it “Better Call Paul”. This was, of course, done in my own layman’s terms, and certainly without any pretense to knowledge of the relevant historical-critical scholarship or deep theological insight. That said, I felt confident enough to speak because I’m partial to the view that being Christian means knowing, living, and retelling the stories about God recorded in Scripture.
Like many of my fellow Christians, I’ve heard a lot of sermons. And like my brothers and sisters in Christ I’ve often wondered what I would say about the subject of the talk I was listening to if I were the one speaking instead. Anyone who goes to church can tell you that they’ve heard many terrible sermons. I know I have. To me part of being an active listener means considering what’s being said, why it’s being said, and how. Over the years I’ve come to realize that I have a strong allergy to regurgitated pop psychology masked as a sermon, and that I usually cringe when pastors try to be cultural critics (they should be critics, surely, but it’s just that in my admittedly limited experience they’re frequently not very good).
Speaking at my local Anglican church here in Montreal has been made easier for me because our topics are given to us by the liturgical calendar, or by a team of our members who choose themes for the year. We’ve done a series on lesser-known figures from the Hebrew Bible, and we’re now doing a series on the early church. In the former series I spoke on the “good” King Josiah, on the return of the Babylonian exiles in Ezra-Nehemiah, I’ve spoken on Christ’s Ascension during the Easter season, and I just spoke on Paul in Athens for the early church series.
Scanning the text of what I’ve had to say on Sunday mornings, there seems to be a pattern I’ve followed. I tend to begin by offering a broad summary of something I take to be central to the Christian faith and community, such as Jesus’ summation of the Law and Prophets by citing the Shema (Deut 6:5) and Leviticus 19:18. With the aid of some basic scholarly material I then try to summarize what’s going on in the text I’m speaking about. This is the most difficult part for me because as an intellectual historian who is invested in a certain of way of making sense of texts from the past, I know that I don’t have the level of knowledge or expertise I would think necessary to speak competently about 2 Chronicles, say. Although I’d like to think I’m a fairly astute reader of historical texts, who also knows how to read into the scholarly material on a given subject, I’m not a biblical scholar, let alone a theologian. So after a summary of what I think is going on in my given text I then try to conclude my talk by tying that summary to the Christian theme I started with. A concluding challenge might go something like this: having summarized what’s going on in Ezra-Nehemiah, and having considered some of the basic scholarly insights about this text, how does this text relate to the broader Christian story and, as a consequence, inform our witness as a church today? (And yes, for those sharper readers, I’m quite aware that I need to offer many a caveat in speaking of a single, authoritative Christian story as if it’s obvious what that might be.)
Another reason I feel confident enough to speak at church, though, is that the sermon is not the whole of a church service. (Phew.) It’s an obvious point I know. But it’s important to underscore because the point of church, at least as I understand it, is not to go hear a sermon. It’s not even exhortation and explication of Scripture, as central as those are to Christian life. Church is a synonym for an assembly of God, and what we do when we assemble is more than listen to someone drone on about a given topic or text. Yes, pastors or priests or laymen speak about God, but the whole activity of being church is a way of speaking of God too. As a community we worship God together in song, we join one another in prayer, we remember together as we repeat creeds and declare God’s kingdom come, we eat and drink together at the Lord’s table, we greet and hug one another as we declare anew God’s peace. A sermon typically happens within the context of a broader communal activity, then, the purpose of which is to simply be the church; although this, I would hasten to add, is a challenging enough task.