Sermon for Sunday, March 22, 2020
Sermon begins at 17:41
I know that there are a lot of priests and preachers this morning preaching to empty, or almost empty rooms. Everyone is trying to do the best they can to participate in worship online, but there is no sense in pretending that it is the same thing as worshipping together, it’s different. I can’t see most of your faces right now, and while that may not change the message I have to give, it does change how it feels to give it.
But this is not the first time I have preached to an almost empty room, as a matter of fact I do it all the time. I very often will come into the empty church and go over my sermons out loud. It’s not because I want the sermon to be some kind of performance, not at all. It is because I want to make sure that what comes out of my mouth is what I really want to say. Sometimes things sound different in your head, or on paper, that they do out loud. So sometimes, I will come into an empty church and preach.
I also do this when I am down taking classes for my graduate program in Tennessee. Most of you know that I am working on a doctorate in ministry, and when I am down at the University I do the same thing. I go into the chapel, which looks nothing like this space, but is nonetheless beautiful with lots of clear windows that look out on the mountain setting, I go in there and I practice my sermons.
I did it this past summer. I had a sermon that I was working on that I needed to give for class, so I left happy hour early one night and walked back up to the chapel to go over my sermon. Most of my classmates were still in the restaurant so I figured I was safe to have the chapel to myself for a bit.
So I went into the chapel and started reading out loud.
And about the time I got a couple minutes into my sermon I saw a man walk up outside, over on my right, just outside the windows, looking around. So, I got quieter, but I kept preaching to myself. A few minutes later he walked into the chapel and I stopped.
The man walked up to me and introduced himself. He was probably in his mid fifties and he was dressed like a man than knows about hard work. He said he lives on the mountain but doesn’t work here or study here. He had been out walking in the woods all day and for some reason he just felt like coming up this way. He knew that there was a chapel here, he had seen it from a distance, but had never been in it. He wanted to see if the doors were open.
I told him, yes, by all means, please look around. I’m just reading over this sermon I need to give next week. He said go ahead and keep reading, who knows, maybe you will say something I need to hear. And he began to look around the chapel and I went back to my sermon, but self-consciousness got the better of me and I read it to myself silently. I told myself that I didn’t want to disturb this man in his time of prayer, but of course the truth was I didn’t want him to think I was crazy, standing here preaching to an empty room.
So he went up to the front of the chapel and for a while he stood there at the foot of this life-sized crucifix, looking up at Jesus, as I stood over in the pulpit, silently reading my sermon. And then, when he was done he walked back over to me and said, would you do me a favor, would you tell me what your sermon is about.
Of course, I said.
Well my passage was from Deuteronomy, but the story was all about the Exodus story, some of which you may remember we heard about last week.
I said to him: Do you remember the story of Moses and the children of Israel? Do you remember the part when God sets them free from slavery to pharaoh?
Yes, he said.
Well, they came to the shores of the Red Sea and they turned back to Egypt. They said, “it would be better for us to serve the Egyptians than die in the wilderness.” But God shows them grace; they sea parts and they keep going.
And then a little further into the wilderness they get hungry. They remember the fleshpots, the food and the bread that they had in Egypt. That food, those fleshpots, that bread, it gave them life. They thought surely they should turn back. They turn and look back to Egypt and say, “if only we had those fleshpots and that bread again.” But God shows them grace; God gives them food, they re-turn and keep going.
And then I said,
They move on further, and when they don’t have any water, they turn away and look back to Egypt; and again God shows them grace and they re-turn and keep going. This happens over and over and over. God’s children even reach the border of the Promised Land once, they look in, and they are afraid, and they turn back toward Egypt again. They turn away from God. And eventually they find their way back to the Promised Land and Moses, right before he dies, tries to make it as clear as he can to them. Life is this way. The Promised Land is this way. Blessings are this way. God is this way. So I said the man that I think when we turn away from God we turn away from life, and it doesn’t really matter what we are turning too.
I told him that I think the point of my sermon is that even though we are on the road to freedom, the fleshpots keep calling. We keep looking back to Egypt. We want good things like bread and water, and family and wealth and comfort, but we forget nothing is as good as God. We want all these things in life, but we don’t want to put faith in God to provide them, that was part of the story from Exodus we heard last week. And I told the man that my sermon is that: God is the source of goodness; God is the source of life. Moses wants the children of Israel to make good choices. He wants them to make God their supreme good. He wants them to pursue God above all else. He wants them to put faith in God.
But I said to him, here is the funny thing: Moses already knows they are going to fail. Because right before Moses tells them to choose wisely, to choose life, he tells them that someday they are going to find themselves wandering again, scattered and exiled. And he says to them that when they realize they have turned away from God, when they take that to heart and they re-turn to the Lord, that he will take them back in love.
And I said to him that what I want to say in my sermon is that we will make wrong turns, but when we do, we can return and come back again. When we discover that the road we are on is headed in the wrong direction, we can turn around. God wants us to choose him. God wants us to choose the Promised Land and choose life. But when we choose wrongly and choose to put our faith in the wrong things, God lets us choose again and return back to him.
And he looked at me for a minute and said, thank you. I imagine if you preach it just like that you’ll do just fine. It really meant something to me. And he stood there a minute and paused and said, “but how can you see in here?”
And I said well, there’s a light right here that shines down on my text. And he said, “well I can’t really see very well. Bad vision runs in my family. That’s usually what I am praying for whenever I come into a church. Better vision.”
That’s when it hit me.
It occurred to me then that there was something missing from my sermon. I spent all this time talking about people turning away from God and settling for lesser things that are never as good as God; I spent time talking about people making wrong turns and heading in the wrong direction, and putting their faith in the wrong things, but I couldn’t see the obvious problem. The reason why we do it. The reason we do it is because we can’t always see which way the road is headed. Bad vision runs in our family. When it comes to knowing where God is; when it comes to judging ourselves and our neighbors rightly, we are all blind. We turn away from the Promised Land we turn away from God and from life, because we can’t always see clearly. We humans don’t have good vision and we can’t see God or Jesus from a distance, we have to get right up close to him and stand or kneel right at his feet to see who he really is. Sometimes God has to get right in our face before we can see him. Lesser things, closer things, block the view. Daily life can block the view. We cannot see the world as it really is. We cannot see ourselves as we really are. Sometimes we need grace to turn us around. By some means we need God to get in our face and show us the way and say “hey, here I am right in front of you, and life is this way.” Sometimes we need God not just to help us see, but also we need God to show us just how blind we really are.
And then it hit me again harder, because I realized in that moment that it was happening to me, right then, only I was the one who was lost, I was the one who was blind and couldn’t see God working right in front of me. Here I was focused on my text, a stranger came up to me and asked me for a word, I think he wanted a glimpse of the Promised Land; he wanted a word of life, he wanted me to show him Jesus and I didn’t do it. I let fear and respectability silence me. I decided to lean on fear more than God’s grace. It was so easy. Here was a holy moment, a divine encounter, and I wasn’t ready to enter in just yet. I wasn’t ready to open my eyes. I made the wrong choice. I was the one who turned away from God. I was the one who couldn’t see clearly. I was the one who was blind.
You know, this man could have just walked out and gone on his way. But he didn’t. He came back over to me and basically said, “would you offer me a word now.” I got a second chance. Here I was preaching to this man about how God gives second chances, and in that moment God flipped my world upside down and this man was preaching to me. I was the one who turned away from God and the Promised Land; I couldn’t see which way led to life, and this man gave me the chance to re-turn again. He touched me and opened my eyes. That was grace.
I once was lost but now am found
Was blind but now I see
We shook hands, said goodbye and thanked each other. I returned to my text and he returned to the woods, but he stopped before he walked out the door and called back to me.
He said, “It’s a round world you know…well meet again.”
And all I could say was “Amen brother, amen.”
I don’t know who that man was. Maybe he was an angel. Maybe he was someone that God sent to cross my path to teach me something. I don’t know. But what I know, or what at least I hope I know is this: I live in a world full of things that I cannot see. Some of these invisible things can harm me, we are all aware of that right now, but some can save me. If there is anything that we all need to realize, especially in this time we are living in, is that we can’t always see with the naked eye everything that is in this world of ours. We can’t always see viruses, and we can’t always see God. I hope I do run into that man again, or someone like him. Because I need God and God’s grace to help me see things as they really are, we all do, because the truth is, we are all born blind.