I’ve been asked more than once by members of the congregation I serve to video my sermons and put them on our website. When I decline, they often ask if I wouldn’t just post the texts on the website. Again I decline, and people don’t understand why.
Here are my thoughts.
It seems that so much of what we value these days we feel a need to capture – to pin down, to have available to us – like a butterfly on a display board. And like the butterfly, the only way we can “save” it is for it to be dead. Oh, certainly, we can then study it and even appreciate it – all of which is good – but we can no longer interact with it, because it is no longer a living thing.
Like good conversation, what happens in a church between preacher and congregant is not static. It is something that is in the moment. It is alive.
While that may not be so obvious from the pew, it certainly is from the pulpit. Sharing one’s thoughts with folks who are engaged and connected, is an entirely different experience from talking with those who are bored or disinterested. Think about a time when you’ve had a story to tell to someone. If that person is disconnected, it is easy to lose the desire to continue the story.
But what about from the perspective of the person in the pew? How is the time devoted to a sermon anything like a conversation? Sometimes the preacher who is willing to risk it will actually open up the sermon and invite response. But more frequently being on the “receiving” end of a sermon is like attending to a conversation partner with respectful listening. There is more conveyed than just the words. Mood, emphasis, intent … all those things expressed by tone of voice, pace, eye contact, body language contribute to what the hearer hears.
As in a conversation, a good sermon doesn’t end when the preacher concludes. A good sermon elicits rumination, reflection and response. Because it is a living thing, parishioners take the ideas and concepts they have heard into their real world lives. One of the greatest affirmations a preacher can receive is to have a parishioner say, “I keep thinking about ...” or “remember when you said ...”
Which brings me to the butterfly on the board. With podcasts and YouTube we now have the capacity to access unending numbers of sermons and church services and theological or religious talks. We can learn from a vast array of sources. We can have a number of ideas about any number of topics to consider. But is that “Church?”
Demographics would tell us that “Church,” in the old sense of gathering with others, is becoming an antiquated thing … that we, as a culture, are less and less inclined to come together for worship, or much of anything else, for that matter. Remember the book published in 2000, “Bowling Alone?”
There are threads that, in the past, tied together our social and political and spiritual lives. It seems those ties are fraying. We see this in our increasing isolation, our disinclination toward public discourse, our ambivalence about commitment. When those ties snap who will we be?
In our culture of individuality, the focus of Church membership has become about the status of our personal relationship with God. While that is well and good, many question if we need to be part of a community for that.
But there is much more to being part of a Church. Gathering as a community is about practicing, if for only one hour a week, living in the peace and unity (the Shalom) we believe God wants for all humanity with others aren’t like us. And what happens between preacher and congregation is a little piece of that.
Gathered, we don’t just think about peace and compassion and inclusion and forgiveness, we do them. Perhaps we do them imperfectly, but we do them. We practice living “on Earth as it is in Heaven.” And no matter what we believe about the theological underpinnings of everything else at “Church,” the ties that bind us are strengthened.
Then we leave, having experienced what it is to live without the pins that hold us to the boards of our separate lives. And in a way that listening to a podcast or even reading a book cannot, the Life in which you and I and all Creation shares will have been nurtured and renewed. We Christians call this living “in Christ.”
Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church.