Saturday, July 5, 2014

Dreaming of church without sermons

What is the purpose of church?

Worship? Fellowship? Prayer?

Let's call it a communal experience of the Divine.

The Church has found that experience in the Eucharist, by eating and drinking the Son of God, by uniting our souls and bodies to every generation of Christians past, present, and future, and uniting us to the death and resurrection of Christ. It is the miracle supreme, the pinnacle of existence until we get to heaven.

Over time, the Eucharist was built up by augmentations: by certain prayers and songs and readings. Lectionaries were developed. We found ways to pray for those whom we forget about in our individual prayers. Brilliant means of worship through song were written, from chant to instrumental music to hymnody to Psalters. An exuberant, overflowing, overwhelming ecstasy of experience that transcends time and space.

OK, so most of the time it doesn't feel that way - the choir is off-key, you were up all night with the baby, you and your spouse fought on the way over and struggle to make it to the Peace. But when you take the bread and wine, no matter how you feel, the reality remains.

Can anyone tell me what the sermon adds to this?

I know that sermons were not a Reformation invention, but during the Reformation they were elevated to preeminence. As a Presbyterian, I was taught that the pulpit is the most important furniture in the church, because of the centrality of proclaiming the Word. And by proclaiming the Word, they didn't mean reading the Gospel; they meant having a 20-30 minute sermon on a text selected by the pastor, not by a lectionary. When you take out the altar and the sacrifice of Mass, a man's words (and it was always a man) become the focus. (Similarly, when you remove the offering of the bread and wine, the offertory is just a money-making opportunity, but that's another story).

Granted, the Anglican and Catholic and Eastern Orthodox and (some) Lutheran churches retained their altars and Eucharists. However, there are still sermons or homilies. The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer doesn't even allow for its removal at the priest's discretion: the rubrics call for a sermon, full stop. That said, most daily Eucharistic services ignore this, or they simply read a brief piece on a saint's day, but Sundays always have sermons.

(Do Catholics have the option of omitting the sermon/ homily?)

Now, most people probably like sermons. They see it as a time to learn something, to be reminded of God's love, to be convicted or enlightened. They may fidget if the time goes over, or the priest has a verbal tic, but even poor homilies are taken in stride, a given, as expected as the Amen after a prayer.

However, for some of us, sermons are minefields. When visiting new parishes or listening to a guest preacher, we tense and clench our fingers, waiting for trigger words. We try to disassociate, or we fixate on the words so intensely, hoping to remove the shock of surprise.

God is not tame. We have a wild God. 

We are at war, and every one of us is a soldier. 

You have no choice. 

Who are you to talk back to God? Who are you to say He is unfair to exercise His holy will? 

When you die, what will you say when God asks "Why should I let you into my heaven?" 

Do you know where you'll go when you die? 

If you were to stop breathing this second, would you know beyond the shadow of a doubt that you wouldn't be in hell? 

Love the sinner, hate the sin. 

Every non-Christian knows the verse "Judge not." Well, won't they get a surprise at the Great White Throne of Judgement! 

You are either with us or against us. 

Those people who abort babies are the same ones who don't believe in spankings. Guess a belt is worse than death. 

When you don't share the Gospel with your neighbor, you sentence them to Hell.

God is a God of love, but He is also holy. He cannot look upon sin, and His wrath must be satisfied. 

God doesn't see any difference in sin. Sin is sin, and the lustful thought you had is the same in God's eyes as the sins of a child molester. 


It's not always this bad. In the Episcopal church, it rarely is. But after a lifetime of damaging sermons, it doesn't take much to trigger a panic attack. And guess what you miss then? Yep, the Eucharist, the whole reason you came.

Some of these damaging notions are heretical by most standards, but sometimes even technically correct notions are delivered in damaging ways. Humans aren't perfect, especially when they have to come up with "original" sermon ideas 52 weeks a year plus major feasts.

So, what's the trade-off? Those with religiously-influenced PTSD and traumatic experiences can stay for the Eucharist, but we may have to attend Sunday school or a formation group for Christian ed. In which case, isn't small group education better anyway? What, really, is the purpose of a sermon, since it's about a man talking to the congregation rather than the congregation and priest having conversation with God?


  1. Imperfect as it is, I rather like the way our church 'does' preaching. We have a different person every week, men and women. They each bring a different style and a different perspective. Usually they are from our own congregation, but sometimes from elsewhere. However, I have still had 'trigger' moments and I often decide then is the time to go to the loo - which in itself is a freedom as at our old church King Pastor would wait until you came back to carry on preaching, most embarrasing if you have some kind of issue!

    No preaching, teaching, music - they are all just the exercising of different gifts. Jesus must be central, not a speech. xx

    1. Not sure what this says about me, but my main take away from your wonderful comment was to squee in delight because you said "loo."

    2. Wait... He waited on you if you went to the bathroom? Um, wow. Issues....

    3. Yes, creepy eh? If you got up to go to the loo or to take a crying baby out or whatever, he would stop and either watch you walk all the way across the room and make some snarky comment so that everyone laughed at you, or he would piously say, "OK let's stop and pray" making you feel incredibly guilty for interupting, or, if he thought you would come back, he would make the congregation wait! But then he did claim that EVERY single word that dropped out of his mouth during preaching was THE WORD OF GOD to be taken on an equal par to scripture or (if scripture didn't seem to agree) to be used to explain 'confusing' scripture through enlightenment by the spoken WORD. In my later years at that church, I used to feel a little sick whenever I saw the boxes on top of the cupboard in the office at church labelled, 'The Word of God', which contained CD recordings of his preaching. It took me a bit to realise that either my subconscious had already realised that things weren't right or it was God prodding my conscience. Either way, it took rather a long time for the penny to drop!

      Haha, so ridiculous, and yet I bought it for a long time!

      You like 'loo'. It's a great word. It should be widely used across the world. Along with daft and nowt. :D

  2. ...sorry that reads badly the last sentence may read better thus: No, preaching, teaching, music - they are all just the exercising of different gifts - rather Jesus must be central, not a speech.

  3. My writing about this will be better than my attempting to blog the lectionary this week ... which is all to say, you should try hearing one of those kind of sermons and then be *prevented* from taking communion (this was in a Catholic church). The only one of these I've ever heard from our current serving priests is the "what will you say to God when you go to Heaven" and it wasn't a you, but an I statement. Our rector takes the journey with us, if that makes sense and if I remember the sermon right, it came back to God's mercy and love. Anyway, once I write the blog post about my sermons experience, I'll come back and link it, if that's okay

    1. Of course it's OK! Link away, I look forward to reading it.

  4. I will try not to ramble too much, but your post struck a chord for me.
    I am a convert to Catholicism, as I have mentioned here before. During my evangelical life, the sermon was King. It was the place in the service where we we were taught.I was blessed enough to have had some good solid teaching, that has stayed with me until this day. Yes, there was some of the other kind, too. :) As I entered the Catholic Church, I expected the sermon to continue instructing me in the faith. Well, um. Let's just say that that was not the case.
    Maybe it's my mindset from having been raised Protestant, or my Convert Zeal, (though my husband is a cradle Cath, and he shares my hunger for learning), but we will seek out and follow good teachers/homilists. Because they aren't coming to us. We have been astonished, incredulous and scandalized at times at what we have heard from the pulpit. From the ridiculous to the sublime, as it has been said. To me, the teaching is an important part of the Mass, though it is optional in the Catholic church. At least on weekdays.
    The other fact, sadly, is that so many of the faithful were poorly catechized (sp?) and we ALL need good, solid teaching. Incidentally, I find that the more orthodox the parish/priest, the better the teaching. I now attend a traditional Latin Mass, and that's where I am most at home.

    1. Sorry it took me three years to respond, Theresa! I loved your comment because it reminds me so much of what I hear many converts say. Even though I'm not Roman Catholic, I faced a similar transition when I started attending Episcopal churches. The poor catechesis is not just a Catholic problem, unfortunately....

  5. Caroline, I must ask you, why do you shy away from some of the truths of scripture, that you highlighted in italics? Note, I say some. I agree that many pastors are not fit to be pastors. I don't believe that any person's words are infalliable, only God's Word is.

    One terrifying truth is that God is holy, holy, holy (Rev 4:8, Is 6:3). When Jesus died on the cross, atoning once and for all for the sins of those who would believe in Him (Heb 7:25, 9:12), He tore the temple veil behind which only the high priest once a year could enter, the Holy of Holies or the Most Holy Place, signifying that through Him and His blood alone those saved by Him can enter into God's presence- the Holy of Holies. It took God Himself to offer His own blood so that God's wrath could be satisfied towards those who would believe in Him, and to allow them into His presence- albeit only being clothed in Christ's righteousness.

    A lot of the truths found in scripture are not easy to take, especially when it says for example "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." (Heb 10:31). These things must be handled with fear and trembling. If we are uneasy with these truths, if they are hard to hear, we should examine why we are afraid. Are we truly right with God if we find these things "damaging", could this be fear ( I speak of the fear as in 1 Jhn 4:8 "There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love." The context of this is not fearing God's judgement, having confidence in Christ alone of salvation. I would advise you to read all of 1 John).

    I'm not writing this to undermine grace or God's love, mercy and kindness. However, we must understand God's holiness and how greatly we should fear standing before Him without being clothed in Christ- only then can we truly praise God for what a salvation! Praise God for His grace, that He pardons guilty sinners through His Son's blood! We must have such a high view of God, and a low view of ourselves.

    Please correct me if I made any incorrect assumptions. I'll be honest and let you know that I'm concerned about some of the things I've read that you've written, and I'm wondering if you understand what the Bible says the Gospel is and how the Bible says we are saved. I would love to start a dialogue with you, if you like to. I'm a straight shooter, so please don't be put off by my bluntness. I pray I'm being gentle, yet seasoned with salt. I would be greatful if we could converse respectfully and honestly about these things. I don't want to just "comment and dash". Let me know if you're interested.


    1. Hi Sarah,

      I have appreciated your openness to dialogue, truly. However, I will be honest and tell you that at some point I may simply say well, we just think different things. I say this not to offend you but because my emotions are pretty fragile right now; I checked myself into a mental health hospital last week and just got out this Monday due to suicidal inclinations. So... my first priority is my own stability and sanity. For that reason, I'm not going to try and prove that I'm saved, since trying to prove this to others is a huge trigger for me (as the above article discussed). Once I'm in a more healthy, stable place I would be glad to dialogue on that level. For the time being, we should perhaps limit ourselves :)