A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden
Sunday, MAY 20th, 2018
I’ll be honest with you, I love preaching, but I don’t love writing sermons. I prepare them in advance, since I’m not really a ‘winging it’ kind of guy. So I do have to wait for inspiration to hit me.
And this is how sermon-writing goes for me: a week beforehand, I read the readings set for the following week, and I try to marinade those readings, if you will, in all the stuff that goes on during the week, so that when I write my message towards the end of the week it reflects in some way something that is relevant in some way to the particular circumstances of our lives at this point in time. But that inspiration sometimes sure takes its time. So I get to Thursday. Not yet. Friday. Oh, not yet either. Saturday afternoon…. now I am starting to get a little anxious.
And, yet, I have never not had a message to preach when I get up in front of you on a Sunday morning. And yes, once or twice, the inspiration hasn’t actually hit me until early Sunday morning.
That word, inspiration, is in interesting one to take apart. Because it literally means ‘to breathe in’. Here is a word in everyday usage that is a direct reference to the Holy Spirit. Without really realizing it, much of the world talks about the action of the Holy Spirit every day.
What the word, ‘inspiration’ means, quite literally, is that we ‘breathe in’ that which sparks our creativity, our imagination, our motivation. And here’s the really crucial detail: in order to breathe it in, it must come from outside us. Now, the reality of the air that we breathe is that it outside our bodies and we take it in. We respire. But metaphorically, when we seek creativity, imagination and motivation, we draw this from outside our own stores. We breathe it in, and it becomes part of us. The molecules I just breathed as I said that were external to me until this moment, but now they have enabled me to stay alive: they have been, literally, incorporated into me, and have enabled me to exist and to grow as a person.
A complex mixture of gases, mostly oxygen, bit of nitrogen etc, is what we breathe in to keep our bodies and minds alive and flourishing. What keeps our souls alive and flourishing is the Holy Spirit. It provides us with all the nutrients we need.
When I was seeking help for my sermon-writing, I knew that what I needed was inspiration into not only my body and mind, but to my soul. I needed the help of the Holy Spirit to know how to navigate through the morass of material and say something this morning that would be helpful. And you can tell me later if you feel like I should have waited for more inspiration or not.
Yesterday was a day for being inspired, and that undoubtedly helped me.
We felt stirred, we felt uplifted, even at 7 o’clock in the morning. Because an occasion such as a royal wedding is, to be sure, an outstanding example, since it encapsulates the very finest endeavors in liturgy, music and architecture. And, I would also add, in preaching, too.
Bishop Michael Curry’s preaching may have hitherto been largely unknown outside of North Carolina or the hierarchy of the Episcopal Church but it think it’s fair to say that half the planet has now heard him preach. Judging from the facial expressions of the royal family, Michael Curry was a tornado that swept through St. George’s Chapel.
As you may know, I was on Bishop Curry’s staff for five years and I know him well and have heard him preach many, many times, so I knew what to expect. And he didn’t disappoint. He was forthright, he was passionate and he was a breath of fresh air. I know that, from comments online, some people felt he was too forthright, but he was not preaching anything which isn’t at the very heart of the gospel. Most importantly, he was doing it with conviction and without being apologetic about the gospel message he was communicating.
That message is the Gospel message, it is that if we love God, and love our neighbor we can change the world. It is breathtaking. Actually, I would want to say, it is breath-giving.
One of the key things I learned from Bishop Curry in working for him is the importance of seeing our church buildings and programs not as ends in themselves but as the batteries, if you will, which power what we do out in the world as Christians for the vast majority of the week.
That is not to say that our sanctuaries aren’t important. They are. They are special places, set aside for something that helps us understand God better. This room, this special place in which we are now seated is seeking to say something about the nature of God; a place where we can find spiritual renewal among our Christian family, for the work that awaits us. That is why we took so much trouble, as well as money, to restore this beautiful sanctuary and build a fabulous new organ. Because we are continuing in a 176-year-old tradition of making sure that a special place remains a special place that feels – and is – qualitatively different from mundane everyday life, a place where prayer has been prayed for all those years, and will continue to be prayed, a place where we can be inspired.
That is not to say, however, that we can’t find the Holy Spirit outside of these special kinds of places. We have to be very careful in traditions like the Episcopal Church and other churches that have ornate and beautiful buildings, that we don’t forget that these buildings are here, ultimately, as base-camps for us to be spiritually equipped to the work God has called us to do in the world.
We are nourished and fed by the Holy Spirit for a reason. I’ve told the story, on several occasions I think, about my home parish church in England. Like many churches it has wall-paintings, and one of those wall-paintings is over the main door. It says, ‘This is the Gate of Heaven’. Not that surprising, really, is it? That’s the kind of thing you expect to see over a church door, isn’t it? I mean, you walk into a beautiful church and you think to yourself, what the people who built this place were trying to do was give you some kind of metaphor of heaven. So, yes, not surprising that my home church has painted over the door, ‘This is the Gate of Heaven’. But, here’s the thing: it’s painted on the inside of the church, as you’re going out.
The Christian calling is mostly not inside our church buildings. It’s in expedition away from base-camp. But in order to be the very best we can be on the expedition, we need to have been at base camp. We are here right now at base camp, to be nourished, to be renewed, to be equipped and to be briefed on the complex road ahead of us. As well as this, we are here to be encouraged. All of this the Holy Spirit does. But we are also here to be challenged, and I want to encourage you to this: to come to this base camp each week, but then seek the guidance, the support, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as you go about your daily lives.
And I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then, in the words of St. Paul, you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.