What makes for a good sermon?

June 28, 2010

During my travels this summer, I have attended Sunday worship in one Episcopal Church and three congregations of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The four preachers I heard (all of them women, well-established in their careers, and accomplished) have prompted me to think again about what makes for good preaching in progressive churches of our time. I liked these preachers because they were:

Personable: It felt as thought they were talking with and to the people who were in that church on that Sunday, including me, guest for the day as I was. Clearly all of these preachers were working from what seemed to be complete manuscripts, which means that their sermons were tightly constructed, with a sense of movement from beginning to end. Yet, the preachers looked at congregants more than they looked at the paper. Their carefully constructed sentences took life in the immediacy of semi-extemporaneous delivery. Although their personalities were distinctly different from one another, each of them had leaned a communicative method that softened the personal idiosyncrasies and allowed their transpersonal message to shine through.

Biblically focused: Each of these preachers paid attention to a text from  the Bible that had been read earlier in the service. Here they differed from many preachers (some of whom I hear gladly) who make little effort to illuminate the biblical texts or to show the connection between the ancient Word and the contemporary words of the sermon. They also differed from many preachers whose sermons focus so much on ancient times that it is difficult to see any connection with life in the world in which we live.

Oriented to life today: These four preachers spent time early in their sermons highlighting some part of their texts so that the ideas therein contained would illuminate and support the message for today that the preacher was prepared to deliver. An example is one of these sermons, which in the worship folder was entitled “Family Values.” It was based on Luke 9:41-62, especially the last portion where someone wanted to delay following Jesus until after saying goodbye to family. The preacher explained how important deference to family was in that time and then indicated the radical character of the challenge that Jesus brought. Even our highest personal and social values are to be aligned with those of the coming age.

She used Dorothy Height, long-time civil rights leader who died recently, as an example of someone who embodied deeply held family values but moved beyond them during her long and illustrious life. The preacher also noted that all of us face the question of where do our family values and our greater values converge. She gave immediacy to the issue by reporting one conversation in which the person had stated “Being gay is not a choice. Being Christian is.” (The very next morning, I fell into conversation at a coffee shop with a woman who has had to struggle with this very issue in her own family and, with little help from her own church, has come to resolution similar to the one implied in the sermon I had heard the day before.)

Appropriate to the liturgical setting: These four sermons were part of full services of Word and Sacrament. Their purpose, in part, was to describe the world the way God wants it to be. In the eucharist that was tightly connected with the sermon, congregants were given a momentary experience of that world. In the family values liturgy, the sermon prepared people to meet one another at the table of God’s family, a table that is broader, more generous, and finally more satisfying than any of the lesser family tables around which we would be gathering later in the day. These sermons came in two sizes: short (nine and eleven minutes) and longish (nineteen and twenty-one minutes). Yet all of them seemed just about right. It seems clear that sermons are only as long as they seem to be.

I’m a hard listener to please, especially on Sunday mornings. Thanks to four good preachers, in Virginia, West Virginia, and Indiana, who have helped me hear the Word this summer.

Going Places from Cumberland

June 24, 2010

This relatively inconspicuous and little known city in the thin sliver of Maryland near the Pennsylvania border is one of the most historic spots in the history of transportation in North America. Located on the Potomac River, this site was part of the simple trail system by which Native Americans and early Euro-American explorers traveled across the Allegheny Mountains. The first Anglo settlement here was a fort used by Generals Edward Braddock and George Washington during the French and Indian War, named after the son of King George II, Prince William, Duke of Cumberland.

Three modes of transportation have used Cumberland as anchor: water transportation–the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (the C & O); highway transportation–the Great National Road; and railroad transportation–the Baltimore and Ohio Rail Road (B & O). It once was forecast to be an industrial center of the United States, a destiny never realized. From a high population of some 39,000 after World War II, Cumberland has gradually diminished to about 22,000 at this time. As the place where the C & O trail and Great Allegheny Passage flow into one another, Cumberland is now developing a new chapter in its history–as the most important location on this entire route from D. C. to Pittsburgh.

I’m posting this column about Cumberland near the Fourth of July because on that day in 1828 two ceremonies transpired that portended much of the future of America’s transportation system. The event with political cachet began early in the morning when President John Adams led an entourage of prominent people on a steamship ride up the Potomac from the capital to Little Falls to launch the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which was to be the culmination of George Washington’s dream of creating a water transportation route from the eastern seaboard to the Ohio valley.

The mood can be seen in the overblown rhetoric at the Falls, which historian Joel Achenbach has excerpted in his book The Grand Idea. Charles Fenton Mercer described what they were doing as one of the “events, the monuments of which, surviving every other memorial of human existence, eternise the nation to whose history they belong, after all the other vestiges of its glory have disappeared from the globe.”

President Adams used similarly exaggerated speech to describe the anticipated canal as “a conquest over physical nature, such as has never yet been achieved by man,” greater even that the pyramids and Great Wall of China. He justified their action by appealing to “the Holy Oracles of Truth” in which “the Lord of the Universe” blessed the first human being with the command that they “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the Earth, and subdue it.”

On that same day in Baltimore, scarcely forty miles distant, a vast crowd estimated by some to be as high as 70,000 people, came together for a ceremony that would launch the construction of tracks for a new creation, the Baltimore and Ohio Rail Road. A important part of the ceremony was the dedication of a symbolic stone by Charles Carroll, ninety-one years old and only surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence.

This was a visionary act for, as Achenbach reports, the longest railroad then in existence was in England, and it was only twenty-five miles. The potential for this new mode of transportation was not yet understood, since most people thought of railroads as routes for horse-drawn wagons using iron rails instead of muddy ruts. Some people thought that canals could be used to transport freight and railroads to carry people. Both projects presented engineering challenges that no one had anticipated and canal and railroad alike led to remarkable engineering advances and achievements.

Steam power quickly came to the fore and the first train arrived in Cumberland in 1842—powered by steam not horses—and the tracks continued to be laid on to the Ohio. Eight years after the rails had reached Cumberland, the canal was finally completed to that place, but it was to go no further. What men like Washington and Jefferson had not been able to realize had now become evident: water was not the way that inland transportation would occur.

Washington, Achenbach points out, “lived his life in the age of wind, water, and muscle power, when mountains and rivers seemed certain to shape the destiny of society. He could not have imagined a world in which technology was more important than geography” (265). The culmination of this part of the struggle took place in mid-century when the B & O obtained financial control over the C & O, primarily to keep rival railroads from using the right of way.

What about the third mode of transportation, the one of greatest interest to bicyclists and motorists? Here, too, Cumberland was a central point. Here the “Great National Road” began, with construction to go in both directions—eastward to Baltimore and westward to the Ohio valley, with its terminus in Vandalia, Illinois. But my story of bicycling the Cumberland Road will have to wait until another time.

Wiggles and Giggles at St James Church

June 21, 2010

“Our family attends the wiggles and giggles service at 9:00 o’clock on Sundays,” the young woman told me. “The liturgy is from the Book of Common Prayer, but we change it a little to make it child friendly.” I decided to skip the Sunday Swap Meet at Le Cirque de Cyclisme that had brought me to Leesburg (Virginia) and see how this classic Protestant church–St James Episcopal–is adapting worship to include young worshipers.

They have to be doing something right. I joined some 200 congregants, fifty or sixty of them pre-teens. In churches I ordinarily attend, I am surrounded by people like me in the late years of life, but on this occasion I saw only a handful my age. Most adults were parents of the children who seemed to be everywhere in the century-old house of worship. We celebrated the liturgy of word and sacrament according to Rite II of the Book of Common Prayer.

The liturgy for the day was photocopied on 11 by 17 paper, folded into six panels. The basic text of the service and concisely written instructions were printed in the folder. Scripture readings for the day and an extended list of intercessions were included on an insert. The words of the Gloria, song between the lessons, and Sanctus were printed, but references to the musical settings in the hymnal were given.

I was aware of one abridgment of the prayer book rite: two scripture lessons (epistle and gospel) were read instead of three. Hymns were familiar to me (though I am not an Episcopalian): “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” “Thy Word” (Amy Grant), “All People That on Earth Do Dwell,” and “The God of Abraham Praise.”

Two of the instructions referred to children. After the first reading: “All stand, and during the singing of the following hymn, all children are invited to process to the Fellowship Hall for Children’s Chapel. They will rejoin their parents in time for Holy Communion.” At the Communion, the leaflet instructs worshipers: “We invite everyone to come forward and participate at the time of Communion. Please know that all baptized persons of any age or denomination are welcomed and encouraged to receive the Sacrament.” The “procession” referred to above was a lively rush by children from all over the church to a side door at the front of the nave. They moved too quickly for an exact count, but at least fifty came during the swarm, and a few children remained in the pews with their families.

Music leadership was provided by organ, digital piano, guitar, and a group of six singers standing on the main level with mikes and music stands. During the fraction, the singers, referred to as the Corner Chorale, led the congregation in singing a responsive anthem. The sermon, which took nine minutes to deliver, was a warm and thoughtful presentation of compassion—God’s compassion for us and, in return, our compassion for one another. The liturgy of the word took twenty-seven minutes and the entire service was completed in just under an hour.

I noticed that the children acted exactly as they do in other churches. Some brought books or coloring materials and immediately turned to them, clearly giving no attention to the liturgy. Others, sometimes with easy coaching by their parents, sang and read the congregation’s lines in the liturgy. Most of the children, as far as I could see, went to the communion rail with older members of their families.

A comment by the mother mentioned above is important. “The service isn’t changed much but we do choose music that is a little more child-friendly than what is used in the 11:00 o’clock liturgy.” That is what I experienced: a solid service in the mainstream of the classic tradition, adapted with younger worshipers in mind. Printed materials in the church and information on its website indicate that the congregation maintains a comprehensive program for children and for adults in their child rearing years. The combination seems to be working at St. James. My hope is that this example can be encouraging to other progressive churches as they minister to families and children.

Note: I would be greatly interested in reports on other congregations which  provide child-friendly worship that is, at the same time, satisfying to adults and consistent with classic modes. (Images are downloaded from the St. James website.)

Bicycling through Time on the Great Allegheny Passage Trail

June 18, 2010

What happens to bicyclists on the C & O Canal Towpath when they reach its western terminus at Cumberland? Their gentle course along the practically flat towpath ends and they face the Allegheny Mountains, which though not as high as the Rockies in the West pose greater challenges to cyclists.

Good news: they can switch over to a trail used by “Native Americans, British and colonial American soldiers, traders and settlers, teamsters, railroaders, and truckers…to negotiate the Allegheny Mountains” and connect the Atlantic coast and the Ohio valley. Now called the Great Allegheny Passage, this trail follows the “topographically dramatic and difficult corridor created by the valleys of Wills and Jennings creeks and of the Casselman, Youghiogheny, and Monongahela rivers.”

George Washington was correct; this route,when joined with the Potomac River, does provide the link between what were for him the East and the West.

For a century, this transportation route was dominated by railroads, but during the 1970s and 1980s, some of these companies began to shut down their lines and abandon their tracks. The longest was a set of tracks owned by the Western Maryland Railway, which ran between Cumberland and Connellsville, Pennsylvania. It took close to 30 years for various trail and conservancy groups to acquire these routes, transform then into a connected trail, and develop management systems. All who enjoy these trails, including the large number of people whose businesses depend upon those of us who travel them, owe a strong word of gratitude to those who have created and maintained these passages.

From Cumberland to Pittsburgh, by way of the Great Allegheny Passage, is 150 miles of leafy wilderness, hard packed trail, and solitude. Despite the fact that it cuts through the eastern continental divide, the steepest grade is about 1.7%, no steeper that the bike trail on the I-5 bridge over the Columbia River a few blocks from my condo. Cyclists with the patience to travel it can go all of the way from Georgetown to Pittsburgh—335 miles—traffic free! Best of all, if the guidebooks are correct, no granny gears are needed; a middle range of gears will suffice even for an old man like me.

The history of America, as it unfolded along the Great Allegheny Passage, is lovingly, beautifully told and illustrated in a book edited by Edward K. Muller, professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, and Paul g Wiegman, photographer and naturalist. The title of their book—An Uncommon Passage: Traveling through History on the Great Allegheny Passage Trail—suggests the romantic glow that shimmers through the volume.

In downtown Cumberland, cyclists make the easy transition from the C & O to the GAP. The trails are much the same: long stretches of cycling in a quiet, close to nature, world where there is no place to go but where the trail goes. On maps, the trail twists and turns, but on the ground itself, riders see only easy bends up ahead. The irregular surface provides a governor on speed, and the crunching sound (especially on the GAP) lulls cyclists into a rhythm that carries them forward throughout the day.

The GAP, however, differs from the C & O. Most notably, the surface, which is hard packed, crushed limestone, is significantly better. The route is free from the ruins of locks, aqueducts, and abandoned buildings that cyclists on the C & O pass frequently. It seemed to me that a larger number of day users cycled along the GAP, the majority of them large-bellied old men with short white beards, who were wearing ordinary clothes (rather than cycling garb) and mounted on knobby tired, fenderless, upright bicycles. In most cases, I suspect, these bikes were rented from a supplier at the nearby village.

Their mood was clearly stated by two men sitting at a canopied table toward the western end of the GAP. “A day on the trail,” one of them told me, “takes us away from the pressures of life in the city.” I understand what they mean. Riding these trails for a week had a mesmerizing effect on me. The rhythmic, evenly paced ride through one sylvan glade after another allowed a sense of settled calm to rise up from my inner self.

Although once is enough for me, I can understand why some people return to these trails as if they were on a pilgrimage to a land of sweet peace.

A Sermon Church

June 14, 2010

“I belong to a sermon church and in addition our church has always insisted on good music.” The speaker, a 39-year-old professional woman from Pittsburgh, was describing her Presbyterian Church in an established Pittsburgh neighborhood. We were part of a group of bicyclists gathered for dinner at a surprisingly up-scale restaurant in Confluence, Pennsylvania, all of us cycling sixty miles a day along the C&O Canal Towpath and the Great Allegheny Passage.

Three days later, as I was continuing my bicycle trip, now on the Old National Road (U S 40), I happened upon a church of my persuasion (Christian Church, Disciples of Christ), at church time and when I was in need of a break. A greeter suggested that I stash my bike under the coat rack, pointed me to the rest room, and offered me coffee

To my surpise, I heard the kind of sermon my cycling companion from the big city may have had in mind. It was grounded in an important text from the Sermon on the Mount–Matthew 5:21-43–and was imaginatively adapted to contemporary times. Instead of being an exhortation telling people that their church had to change, this sermon was in the indicative mood. It included a careful explanation of what it means for all of us to live in a post-modern, post-Christendom period of time.

It was refreshing to hear such a constructive set of important ideas in an ordinary sermon, on an ordinary Sunday, in an ordinary church. It was twenty-one minutes long, delivered with animation from a manscript, a little rough around the edges, but for me, at least, a compelling message.

Especially interesting is the fact that this preacher was also a young woman who obviously believes that serious preaching about important ideas still has a place in churches that want to appeal to a post-modern generation living in a post-Christendom world.

At the door, the preacher told me that she’s doing continuing education online provided by Andover Newton Theological Seminary. Some of the ideas in that sermon came from these studies.

This congregation may not think of itself as a sermon church, but that’s what it was for me. Thanks to this good sermon (and the Eucharist that followed), I have something to ponder this week as I continue my westward bicycle journey on America’s National Road.

Harpers Ferry, A Place Stained with Blood

June 9, 2010

Sixty-one miles upstream from Washington, D. C., the Shenandoah River breaks through the mountains to empty its waters into the Potomac. This is where I spent my first night as a cyclist on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath. Although I had ridden only the twenty-six miles from White’s Ferry, a thunderstorn and steady rain for half the distance had generated a mud slurry on top of the path and cyclists arrived covered with mud.

Because of the profusion of hills and hollows, along with the river vistas, the Shenandoah-Potomac setting is marked by natural beauty. Practical men, including George Washington, however, seemed oblivious to the value of beauty; instead, utility is what fascinated them. The falling water could provide power for industries important to the nation, and the location near the nation’s new capitol and on the emotional border land between North and South, suggested that an armory and factory to manufacture arms should be established there.

Here, two visions of American society came into close contact. In The Grand Idea, Joel Achenbach notes that Harpers Ferry, the community that came into being at this site, sat in Virginia, a slave state, “but the industrial economy made the town something of an island of the north.” The population in 1859, when John Brown raided the armory in the hope that he could launch a revolution to free all of the slaves of the South, “included 1,212 whites, 1,251 free blacks, only 88 slaves” (270). Brown’s rebellion failed, and he was hanged on December 2, 1859. A few minutes before his execution, Achenbach reports, he wrote a final statement: “I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land: will never be purged away but with Blood” (272).

The bloody crimes of America have a second feature that is sublimated beneath the more obvious burden of slavery: the harsh labor that industry forced upon legions of ordinary people, white and black. Achenbach summarizes the situation well when he says that “for millions of Americans, industrialization meant only the intensification of pain.” He quotes Fanny Trollope’s description of conditions she saw while traveling the Cumberland Road, the first highway of consequence in early America. Free laborers and black slaves all suffered. She noted that the slaves would be cared for when sick “as a valuable horse is watched and physicked; not so the Irishman; he is literally thrown on one side, and a new comer takes his place” (259). On some future date, I will write again about the terrible cost in human life the canals and railroads have demanded of ordinary people.

Much of the lower part of the town is now managed by the National Park Bureau and the buildings are set up for self-guided tours of the military, industrial, and civil rights history that has centered in this town. On this quick trip through town, however, all I had time to do was make a few notes and gather a short bibliography. More about these some other time.

Note: The photo at the top of the column is taken from the website of the Harpers Ferry National Park.

Have “the Congregationalists” Won?

June 7, 2010

The recent consecration of Mary Glasspool to the office of bishop in the Episcopal Church is one more threat to the connectional system that binds the Anglican Communion together. For many Anglicans the fact that a woman is ordained is cause enough for deep distress. The fact that this new bishop lives in a same-sex partnership compounds the challenge and calls into question whether the connections that hold the Anglican Communion together will be strong enoughto accomplish their purpose.

These developments in a tightly connected system have been especially interesting to me because I work and worship in as loosely connected a church as one can find—the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Despite my church’s witness for Christian unity, this communion has for more than 200 years been marked by fractures, schisms, and the gradual drifting apart that leads to full separation.

The debate in the Episcopal Church, theologian Ellen K. Wondra wrote in 2005, is concerned with perennial tensions in the understanding of the church: “tensions between unity and diversity, and between autonomy and communion.” The recommendations by an international commission of the Anglican Communion referred to “instruments of unity,” systems that give “clear priority to unity over diversity, to community over autonomy, and to centralization of authority at the international level.”

While acknowledging the need for stronger instruments of unity, Wondra gives even stronger support to processes that would help her church discern God’s actions in the world and “especially how God is offering us direction and guidance through ideas and events and practice that we find more frequently outside the church than we do inside it.”

The tensions that Wondra describes are felt across the full spectrum of churches, and the tendencies today seem to favor splitting up rather than staying together. In a conference on religion in the Pacific Northwest  (see my column dated May 24), historian Patricia O’Connell Killen declared that “the congregationalists have won,” by which she meant that regardless of the formal polity of a communion, the power of the local church seems to win the battles.

Wondra implies that in the gender-based debates, the move away from central control encourages the development of new understandings of the church. Important developments in church life, including the acceptance of divorced people and the ordination of women, have come from congregations and dioceses that stretched, perhaps defied, the norms of their ecclesial families.

The movement toward the local, however, is often inspired and empowered by people who are determined to preserve an existing church culture rather than open it to the new, as is seen in many of the parishes now leaving their dioceses. I am inclined to believe that Killen’s congregationalists—perhaps localists is a better word—have more often held back progress and that new ideas and incentives to try them have tended to come from the more connected parts of ecclesial networks.

For me, and for many other people in the churches, the apparent victory of the localists is therefore not a happy development. It means that the gospel and its implications for life in the world are more likely to be no larger than what we and the people immediately around us are able or willing to understand and accept.

Throughout the church’s history, one resolution to this problem has been expressed by the idea of covenant. We bind ourselves to one another with promises of respect and loyalty. Our mutual allegiance to a common center—faith in Christ, commitment to the Scriptures, shared history—is declared to be enough to keep us together despite the strains that come over time.

Unfortunately, the determination to be correct, and to insist that others live according to our understanding of correctness, constantly puts covenantal relations to the test. Even when connectional systems—the instruments of unity—reinforce the covenants, the center may not hold. I am too much the congregationalist, however, to encourage the strengthening of the systems of control. Is not the better course of action to focus our energy upon reaffirming the theological center that empowers the covenant? And to engage in open, vigorous, principled discussions at every level of church life?

Wondra concludes her address with the prayer that this kind of discussion will strengthen the “bonds of affection” that maintain “the cohesion” of her church.” My prayer is that this same kind of conversation will persuade us all “to be united in the same mind and purpose” (1 Cor. 1:10).

Ellen K. Wondra’s address “The Highest Degree of Communion Possible,” is published in Anglican Theological Review 87/2 (Spring 2005), 136-206).