In preparing for this morning’s sermon, I went through my sermon files to find some inspiration from what I had preached on this Sunday in the past; and what I discovered is the sermon you about to hear. It is the very first sermon I preached as a then twenty-six-year-old deacon on my first Sunday as curate of Grace Church in Utica, New York–exactly thirty-seven years ago this weekend.
To give you some added perspective, it would be another six months before I would even meet my wife, Sterling. The sermon is, I think, full of the intensity of a newly minted clergyman; and while I might phrase some things differently today, there is not a word of it that I would take back, and only a few sentences that I have changed as I now preach it again this morning.
From the last chapter of the Gospel according to St. Mark: “Go ye into all the world, preaching the Gospel to every living creature.”
Preaching the Gospel. Preaching. “Now I don’t want to preach to you, but . . .” How many times have you heard that said to you? How many times have you said it to someone else? “Now I don’t want to preach to you, but . . .”
This is a sermon on preaching. It is a sermon on why, so often, we don’t want to preach. “Now, I don’t want to preach to you, but . . .” But what? “But I wouldn’t marry that girl if I were you, because her family is no good and you could do a lot better for yourself.” Or, “But, if you don’t get your hair cut, you’ll never get a good job, and people will think you’re some kind of slob.” “Now, I don’t want to preach to you, but if you don’t come to church with us this morning I’m going to box your ears.” “But you dress too conservatively and the company you’re interviewing is looking for a more dynamic image.” “But if you don’t play tennis with us the other women won’t have anything do to with you socially.” And so on and so forth.
But. But this and but that. And while all that follows those “buts” may be factually true–even, in some case, good “advice”–none of it is preaching. At its core, what inevitably follows “but” is nothing more than a series of trite moralisms–examples of opinionated advice. No wonder we don’t want to preach. No wonder no one wants to hear us preach!
To preach is to witness to the Word of God–to declare before “all living creatures” the life and work of Christ. It is not one person’s opinion; it is not the facts of social mores; it is not even good advice. It is the Word of God made active in your life–and in the life of the person to whom you’re preaching.
When this is understood, the impediments and inhibitions to our preaching are removed. The “but” is gone. Instead of, “I don’t want to preach to you,” we are able to say, “Let me preach to you; let me share with you my life in Christ. Let me tell you of something which may make your own life more meaningful.”
On this level, then, preaching is a form of witnessing. As I share my life, we share Christ’s life. The God/man named Jesus who two thousand years ago experienced the same suffering and agony–the same rejection and humiliation–which we all continue to experience today, is precisely the same Risen Lord whose life and work we draw upon to understand our own lives. With St. Paul, “we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Gentiles pure folly.” And “folly” it is: the glorious folly of God become man, so that man could join God. The folly of a Lord who knows exactly the joys and temptations of human life, because he has shared in them all.
Yet “folly” it remains. To all of us some of the time; to many of us most of the time; to some of us all of the time. We preach. We preach Christ crucified. We don’t seek to give advice or force our opinions on others. We preach–we preach to everyone who will listen, and even, perhaps, to those who won’t. We preach Christ crucified.
Embarrassing? What will the other men at the office think? What would the rest of the basketball team think if I were really to mention Christ in a conversation? Embarrassing? Again with St. Paul, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel I preach.” “For what we preach is not ourselves, Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as servants for Jesus’ sake.” Preaching. Preaching and servanthood as the very essence of Christian ministry–of my ministry, and of your ministry.
We preach at once Christ crucified and Christ risen. “Christ has died, Chris is risen, Christ will come again.” To be ashamed of him and his Gospel is to be ashamed of ourselves, for it is only in him that own lives find meaning. We share daily in the agony of his death and the joy of his resurrection. To be judgmental, to be opinionated and to offer prejudicial advice is to preach only ourselves; but, again, “what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord.” We preach his Gospel, not our whims.
So here we have preaching as witnessing. But preaching is also activity–it is life. It is life in Christ. To preach is not only to share the Gospel, but to live it. To experience it. To know it. Only then can we expect our words to make sense to others. If I preach to you the God of life and lose all hope myself, how can I expect you to hear me? If I preach to you that, “In Christ there is no east nor west, in him no north nor south,” and in turn denigrate my neighbor, slander someone of another race, and refuse to speak to that ugly and unpopular kid ahead of me in the lunch line, how can I expect you to believe a word of what I say? How can I expect you to see Christ in my life? How can I expect you to allow Christ to enter your life?
So to preach is to live. Preaching is the manifestation–the living proof and living truth–of the Risen Lord. If my life is false, my preaching is false; it is then that I preach not Christ Jesus, but myself.
I am not speaking here of earthly perfection. I am speaking of effort–of effort through hope. Of life with hope. Of life in Christ Jesus and Christ Jesus in my life. To know Christ is to know life; to know life is to know Christ. The Christ I know has lived the experiences–the daily trials and tribulations–which constantly confront me. My hope is in him who lives in me. I preach, therefore, not myself, but Christ Jesus within me.
To preach in this way is to make myself a servant of all with whom I come in contact. It is to open myself up; to speak and to hear; to share my life and to allow others to share theirs. If the same Christ lives within all of us, then surely we must all live with each other. As I serve him, I must serve you, too. This is the servanthood of preaching: it is the servanthood of knowing that you and I are one in Christ. To fail you, to slight you, to mock you or to treat you as my inferior, is to fail, slight, and mock Christ. I must serve you through serving him; and his humility and life of sacrifice must then be my own. “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as servants for Jesus’ sake.”
These two themes–of preaching as witnessing, as proclamation; and preaching as servanthood, as caring–were the two identified for me when I was ordained to the diaconate two months ago. They are, specifically, the functions of a deacon: to preach the Word of God by caring for the sick and the poor. The diaconate, then, is a ministry of preaching as service. It is the ministry to which I have been called and which I now begin to exercise in this parish. But it is also a ministry that is joined with the ministry of all of you, because we all share the same life in the same Risen Lord. I cannot be more than you, nor can I be less than you, because the same Risen Lord lives within all of us.
The efficacy of our preaching rests, therefore, on the truth of our lives. If I preach other than the life I live, then I preach myself, not Christ Jesus; but I am not ashamed of my life in him, and am not ashamed of the Gospel I preach. I look forward these next few years to sharing that Gospel with all of you, and would ask that you, in turn, share it with me.
“Go ye, therefore, into all the world, preaching the Gospel to every living creature.” Preach Christ’s life; and live your preaching.
This sermon was originally preached by the Reverend Douglas E. Remer in Grace Church, Utica, New York, on the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 15, 1975; and was preached again, with only minor changes, in Saint John’s Church, Tampa, Florida, on the Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 17, 2012.