I preached tonight at Seabury, which I love doing, even if it scares me. This one certainly scared the hell out of me, mostly because I preached it without notes (something I've only ever dared in class before) but a little because it's more vulnerable than most of mine.
I'm not sure that I've ever had such a powerful experience preaching before. The whole service was really powerful, actually, in a lot of little ways. I had an especially hard time distributing communion - a couple of times I had to try twice to get the words "the body of Christ" to leave my mouth. But the preaching was a lot of it. Preaching always takes something out of me, and at Seabury it always takes a fair amount, but this one really took almost everything I had. From the feedback I got, the sermon seems to have worked for the congregation also.
I did write a text for organizational purposes, and I'm putting it below, though I'm not sure this sermon works as well in text form as it does spoken. It's obviously not exact, since I didn't use the text, but particular words stick in my mind, so it's pretty close. Oh - the biblical text is 1 Cor. 1:26-31.
Last week my roommate stopped writing, looked around her room, and said. “Every flat surface in this room has a book on it. I think I’m looking for the words I can’t seem to find in my head.” Boy, did that ring true for me. My gut reaction to most problems, certainly most writing and thinking problems, is to look for another book to fix it. Someone asks me, “What do you know about…?” and my first instinct is that I know I have a bookshelf. I start thinking about what I’ve read that I could give them, not what I know about x. In fact, if someone asks me about my own experience, I’m likely still to reach for a book. I’m likely to ask someone else to explain it for me, to flip through pages until I find someone who has.
Words hold wisdom. In words, the wisdom of one time can be pinned down and passed forward to future generations, and we can pick it up again a hundred or a thousand years later. Words are what let me in on all the marvelous thinking that people far more insightful than I are figuring out. Words are how I figure out what I’m thinking. That’s a lot of why I feel so at home in this place. The seminary often wants to tell us that words, especially written words, are of immense worth – are, in fact, worth more than experience. And I already tend to hold words over experience as a source of wisdom, so that becomes a pretty comfortable place for me to live. I get to hide out in my love of books, and call it wisdom.
But the things that mean the most to me, the things that show me God most clearly, are not, in the end, books. In fact, maybe part of why I look so quickly to books is that when it comes to God, words don’t come easily to me. I want to hear how someone else has taken a smell, a glance, a texture, and translated it to the written word, because I need to put it into words somehow in order to preach it.
The closest I can come to articulating my desire for God is very often to open the hymnal and sing “Lord of all gentleness, Lord of all calm, whose voice is contentment, whose presence is balm, be there at our sleeping, and give us, we pray, your peace in our hearts, Lord, at the end of the day.” The closest I can come to articulating what I believe, what the Church believes, about God, is usually to quote Scripture or Augustine or Madeleine L’Engle. For the same reason, I was never much good at writing Happening affirmations or psych notes or love letters. I was always better at collecting quotations for my friends and lovers than writing out my own sentiment.
But even there, even with the most articulate words I can find, they don’t go far enough. No words can convey to you the way that I know God by the touch of your hand, by the taste of fresh chamomile, by the smell of my grandmother’s perfume. Maybe some of you know something about what that’s like – maybe words can take us far enough to meet in the middle between our experiences of God – but they’ll never take us all the way across. How can I tell you about the particular glow of a torch on the lake, when it’s not really about the glow at all but everything that brings me to the place where I see that glow? How can I tell you?
I can’t. But I find a little comfort, and a little clarity, in wondering whether maybe God couldn’t either. Whether maybe that’s why the Word became flesh; as Paul says, “became for us wisdom from God.” I’d like to think that God can shape words to do exactly what they ought to do; that God’s eloquence far outshines any of ours. But after centuries of speaking to us, maybe even God couldn’t explain God’s love for us without coming himself and looking us in the eyes.