A mother in the choir had a dilemma. She wanted to bring her six-year old son to church, but realized he was too young to sit unattended. Her solution, have the boy sit with his grandfather – her dad. The only problem was grandpa was prone to falling asleep during the sermon. The mother told her son she would pay him $5 if he kept his grandfather from nodding off. Well, at some point during the rather lengthy sermon, the faint sound of snoring wafted through the church. Sure enough, grandpa was fast asleep. After the service the mother questioned her son. Why didn’t he keep his grandfather awake? Didn’t he want to make $5? “Well, I did,” the little boy said, “until grandpa offered me $20 to let him sleep.”
Sermons. This past week, while going through some of our historic artifacts, I came across this booklet. It is a hand-written, pen and ink sermon on Luke chapter 8, verse 8 – “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” Now, there is no indication who wrote the sermon, but notations in the front and back of the booklet indicate when and where it was preached. It was first delivered as a lecture in London, England on April 1, 1792 and then in February of 1793. One week after the preacher arrived in the United States he delivered this sermon in Norfolk on March 20, 1796. The notes indicate it was given in several other Virginia churches through 1808, but there is no record of it being preached here or how the booklet came to reside in our parish archives.
I spent this past week transcribing the sermon and let me just say before anyone suggests I should preach it here and now, please know that it is about six times longer than my typical sermon and – if I may be so modest – not nearly as gripping. But, because I know you are curious, allow me to give you just a wee taste of what a sermon sounded like in 1792 by reading aloud its first two sentences:
He that knew what was in man, knew also of that slowness of apprehension, their grossnesses of conception, their blindness and inadvertency, the love of pleasures, the distraction of worldly cares, and the fear of persecution, were likely to prove great obstacles to their believing and embracing the doctrine of Christianity, and strong temptation to make them revolt from it, either in faith or practice, before they were well established in it. And therefore, he acquaints them in this chapter under the Parable of the Sower, with the whole state and nature of the Christian dispensation, the different success and with his Gospel then did and would ever after meet with, and the main hindrances of its reception.
Shall I continue, “nay farther” (my favorite phrase from the sermon) with “the instruction in righteousness”, or do those of you in my “charge” – “careless and inattentive hearers” though you may be – desire and have appetite for me to move on?
Historic sermons. In this morning’s first reading we hear the very first sermon ever preached in the Christian church. The promised gift of the Holy Spirit has come upon the small band of Jesus’ followers and immediately they are empowered to proclaim and live out the faith. Peter preaches the first sermon to a crowd which has gathered to figure out what all the commotion is about. And what is the very first thing he says to them? What is the first line of the first sermon ever preached? Here it is:
“We are not drunk, as you suppose.”
Now that is a fantastic way to begin a sermon ever, isn’t it!
It may not be what you expected, but at its heart it is something we still have to address in our own time; namely the need to give an account of why we are a part of what our Presiding Bishop calls ‘the Jesus movement.’ The majority of people in our society have little or no connection to an organized faith community, they have no idea why we are here, what the things we doing here mean, and what we receive from our experience of being here.
Why do you give your money to support the operations of this church? Why do you give your time to teach in the Sunday School, change the Altar hangings, sing in the Choir, or pull weeds? What fuels your deep compassion, your readiness to forgive, your strength in adversity, and your sense of hope and joy even at the darkest times?
The first sermon was preached because three things happened:
First, something very powerful happened to the faithful.
Second, the world new something happened to them, but didn’t know what, how, or why.
And third, Peter not only felt the need to explain himself, but also understood the importance of taking advantage of the opportunity.
“We are not drunk,” he said. “God’s Spirit has been poured into us.”
God’s Spirit has been poured into us. Think about that for a moment. Let it sink in. Do you remember how, in last week’s sermon, I described God as being a perfect Relational Harmony – that this Relational Harmony is at the core of all existence and the fundamental essence of all reality? I said the life of this Relational Harmony revolves around the qualities of mutuality, generosity, selflessness, and respect.
When Jesus came to earth, he manifested this perfect Relational Harmony in human flesh and bone. We could see it, touch it, engage it, listen to it, learn from it. Peter, in explaining what has happened to him and his fellow believers, proclaims something even more astonishing: the perfect Relational Harmony, the core of all existence and the fundamental essence of all reality, had been poured into them. It lives in them and they in it. It lives through them and they through it. And by referencing the prophet Joel, Peter touches on a historic awareness of the perfect Relational Harmony’s desire to share its life with all people and all of creation.
What do you believe? How do you describe the hope that is in you? We who are here today no longer do what everyone else is doing. We are a distinct minority. The grim possibility of eternal damnation does not hold sway in our time the way it did in 1792. I can’t image you are here primarily to avoid it. So why are you here?
In the year 2260, if someone is tinkering with the ancient and long forgotten method of opening a Microsoft Word document on the hard drive of a personal computer and just so happens to come across today’s sermon, I am confident they will find it to be a curious novelty with a kind of language and process of thought distinctly unfamiliar to their own. But I am also confident of two more things: First, the Christian faith will be alive and well, but perhaps organized in a way very different from our time. And second, the faithful will still need to give an account not so much of what they believe, but why they believe it.
I am not prepared for the fallout of what might happen should we all rush out of this service speaking in different languages, but I do expect us to be occupied by the Spirit of the perfect Relational Harmony and to manifest its qualities of mutuality, generosity, selflessness, and respect. In and of itself, this will cause people to take notice and to wonder what in the world is going on with us. What will you say to them? A good opening entrée – something to lighten the mood – might be to follow Peter’s lead: “Well, I am not drunk.” What you say from here is up to you. Why are you here?