This is the Fantasy Sermon as sent to and accepted for publishing by The Mennonite. It should not be published otherwise without permission. MWL
A Fantasy Church and Sermon
But the Preacher is Alive and Real
Having preached since 1950, and being in my upper eighties, I sometimes ponder what I would say if I were asked at my age to give an introductory sermon to a declining congregation whose faith was mired in the dogmas of the sixteenth century, diluted with a blend of popular conservatism, and tempted to believe the prosperity gospel they hear on television and radio.
I imagine that the congregation I am preaching to is discouraged, tired, and is about ready to give up the faith and disband. Nevertheless it is thoughtful, loving, trusting, appropriately suspicious and cautious, and willing to give this aged pastor the benefit of at least one sermon.
I preached my first sermon in Tampa, Florida, on the last Sunday of March, 1950. My text was I Cor. 2:2, “For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” Unwittingly, I had chosen the theme of my preaching for much of my life.
Now, 62 years later, I add 2 Corinthians 4:5 to my text. Paul and Timothy wrote, “For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake.” The main theme of their preaching was still Jesus, but they acknowledged that their own stories were mingled with the Jesus story. I have lived a long life. Now, my preaching of Jesus as Lord likewise has an autobiographical tone.
The Hebrew Scriptures say that God spoke with the voice of thunder from Mt. Sinai and forbade any one to make a likeness of the divine being. But most people do have a mental image of God. Perhaps the simplest such image is of “the man upstairs” who can be praised or blamed for whatever happens.
My notion is that God is a divine presence that is as pervasive in the universe as the air that envelopes the earth. The use of the word, spirit, in the Bible supports the idea of God being like the wind whose presence can be felt as a gentle breeze or a forceful gale blowing east, west, north or south. We should not be tossed to and fro by every wind that blows, instead we know enough about the nature and character of God that we can test the wind that blows. When I sense a prevailing wind, I seek to sail in the direction God wants to move me. That is a reason for many of the changes in my life.
Years of preaching have convinced me that the Bible is a rich source of teaching material. Truth from Biblical narratives, parables, allegories, poems, prophetic and apocalyptic literature, and epistles have comforted, instructed and guided readers through the centuries. If I were to preach for another lifetime I believe the Bible would be the basis for my sermonizing. I take the Bible seriously. I have learned also not to take my present understanding of the Bible to be my final understanding.
I urge you to take the Bible seriously, but not to view your present understanding of it as final. In the past, the Bible was commonly believed to be an inspired word, word by word, by God from God. The people did not learn from the experience of past generations who insisted in vain that the earth was the center of the universe, and flat, because the Bible said so. The Bible was taken too literally and the growing evidence about the roundness of the earth and the movements of stars and planets in space was ignored.
A believer who takes the Bible too seriously runs a risk. He may cause the Bible to be scorned as superstition and its readers to be indifferent to it. To hold on to a supposed fact after it has been proven false is like concealing a poison pill in the truth. Parents who take the Bible too seriously ought to not expect their children to respect it for long.
The Bible’s data may not be exact, but it is still a book of truth that should be read, studied and respected. The Bible has myth-like qualities. Conscientious students of my generation had little use for myths believing them to be entirely false. A myth is an ancient story with data that cannot be proved by research. Even though its data cannot be substantiated, a myth may still be a mine of truth. As an octogenarian I give myths my respect. Again, I say, I take the Bible seriously, but I will not let my present view of it to keep me from lifelong learning.
When I studied a section of the Bible seriously to make discoveries for myself, I read through it quickly to view the passage as a whole. To get the particulars of the passage I read it again more slowly, and aloud. If the passage was familiar, I took the pain to write it down and pay special attention to repetition, contrasts, progression of ideas, sequence of events, the places and people mentioned, and to the connecting words like “if,” “as,” “and,” and “but.” I was not searching for facts, but trying to grasp the truth in the story. By giving close attention to the familiar words of John 3:16, I understood that God loved the world before sending Jesus.
This truth from John 3:16 helped me to reconsider events as recorded in the beginning. Some students use data in the Bible to calculate age of the earth to be little more than six thousand years. I invite you to take a first great leap with me over time, whatever it is, to the beginning and see a satisfied smile on God’s face as he says “now that’s good” at the end of each day of creation. If your God has a frowning face, I suggest you take another look at the stories.
In the beginning, listen to a soft chuckle as God formed a woman from the man’s rib. Puzzle over the enigma that God said Adam and Eve would “surely die” on the day that they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and they did “not surely die,” just as the serpent said they would not. See the kind face of God as he chased down the semi-nude couple, clothed them more modestly, sent them out to populate the earth, and trusted them to give care for it responsibly. Be surprised by the Creator’s compassion for Cain, the oldest son, that first murderer, whom God mercifully protected from the capital punishment he deserved.
Was God pleased with any of these first people? No, no! But he loved them and thought kindly of them even as he judged them.
The themes generated by these old tales persist tenaciously in the Bible. Laws given by God were soon disobeyed. Judgments were harsh, but soon softened. Often there were evidences of unexpected grace and a loving kindness that was steadfast. Prophetic glimpses of a future world at peace kept hope alive.
Now I invite you to take a second giant leap with me. This time, we leap from the beginning of the Old Testament to the beginning of the New. This giant leap lands us in the middle of events surrounding the birth of Jesus as chronicled by Luke.
The story is too grand to be limited to bare data. It must be supported by events that are myth-like, such as the appearance of a heavenly messenger to shepherds at night. This single messenger is joined by a heavenly host. To me, glory from heaven is not essential to the story. What matters is the promise of joy to all people on earth and world-wide peace to all those with whom God is pleased. We have already noted that God had been kind to all, but pleased with no one. This suggests a new possibility.
Could it be that God is treating all humanity as though he were pleased with them?
Though there was a myth-like quality in the simple grandeur of the baby’s birth, there is no mystery in his innocence. He was, after all, but a baby. Thirty years later everyone wondered at the man the baby had grown to be. He is a single male who does not yield to lust, who has no desire for fame, wealth, applause or revenge. It is said simply that he left home and “went about doing good.” According to friend and foe he was a good man who was “a friend of sinners.”
According to the myth, a voice from heaven declared that “this is my son in whom I am well pleased.” Here is a man that pleases God by the way he behaves toward the sick and the poor, tax collectors and other outcasts, the women who love him and the men who fear him. He is so good, so friendly, and so neighborly to everyone and so fearlessly honest in his indictment of the hypocritical power-brokers of his day that they crucify him. He prays for forgiveness for the soldiers who nail him to the cross. The cross grants forgiveness of sins, but his life will save the world. This man of good will towards all points the way to communal peace on earth. It must be said again that in him God was well-pleased.
Now I invite you to take a third giant leap with me. This time let us leap from the days of Jesus and the early church to our own time and place, the scenario we share. The three leaps may have left most of us exhausted, shocked, and dismayed. We have more questions with fewer answers than before. I believe a sermon is supposed to rouse questions that make an audience think.
First, I invite the senior members of the congregation to remember and think along with me. Some of us may be in a funk because we believe that we are of no account to anyone anymore. I wish to rouse you. You can enrich the church by telling your long memories.
Do you recall a Mennonite church where the women wore coverings, cape dresses, black stockings, no jewelry, not even wedding bands, and most men wore plain suits, hats without dents or creases? Do you remember when the men and women sat on separate sides of an auditorium; a congregation’s worship was limited to four-part singing without instruments? Do you remember when the church began to organize for the education of its youth, and give mission and service opportunities to them?
If you remember, I believe you are obligated to talk about the memories. I told you my preaching would be autobiographical and now you, too, must unashamedly talk about your own experiences when you preach Jesus. Join me in confessing that some trusted Biblical texts have proven to be misunderstood and misused, and in warning that the same tragedy may befall the church today.
Second, I speak to the middle-aged members of the congregation. Many of you serve as the officers of the congregation and make up the committees of the congregation. I urge you to quit giving so much credence to the popular preachers on radio and television who declare a prosperity gospel and use biblical literalism to dilute the truth. I caution you against saying “we’ve always done it this way.”
May the middle aged members of this congregation surrender to the winds of change even though you believe certain verses in the Bible give you authority and obligate you to keep everything the way it is. Take care to heed the testimony of older generations, and do not make the Bible say what it has always said to you in the past.
Third, I speak to the young among us. Seniors have memories of the past, the middle-aged are in charge of the present, but the future belongs to you and the children. It appears to this octogenarian that society must change quickly
If you take the Bible too seriously, you, like many of their elders, will ignore such things as global warming, pollution, famine, conflict and other crises known to science. This dare not happen to you. Much uncertainty, despair, and fear are normal for you. But this too is normal: You are strong, hopeful and visionary. You have a larger world view, you see and hear more clearly, you learn more quickly and you can do more than your elders. You are eager to lead.
Finally, the seniors, middle-aged, and youth of this congregation need to communicate with one another. Seniors need to help the youth to believe that the unchangeable can be changed, the immovable can be moved, and the impossible can be done. Youth need the middle-aged to legitimize their vision. The pain of change is followed by the challenges of new life, hope and opportunity.
I will conclude on an autobiographical note: The congregation of my childhood was progressive for its time. About 75-80 years ago it welcomed a men’s quartet from Eastern Mennonite School (University) to sing in a special service. Doing this broke the rule that singing be by the congregation only. The auditorium was packed.
This little boy sat on the front row literally at the feet of the quartet and heard the bass runs to “Amid life’s busy, hurrying throng . . . I want my life to tell for Jesus.” The song left a lasting impression on me. I determined that my life should make a difference for Jesus. Follow Jesus, and your life will make a difference. Amen!