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Archive for October, 2008

Preaching the cross

Posted by Ron George on October 26, 2008

Icon of the Holy Cross, artist unknown

The celebrant was a pot-bellied, garrulous retired military officer of Irish extraction, a charming storyteller — well, what else? He’s Irish, after all. An almost ungainly man in his civvies, he was so at home in the sanctuary that he seemed at once formal and informal — comfortable and yet awed and awesome, taken up by the Mystery with his feet on the ground.

  It’s hard to preach a memorable sermon. My theory is that a sermon is memorable when God speaks to me, when there’s something I need to hear. No one else may remember the sermon, certainly not the preacher; but I do, because the Spirit connected me not with another man’s words but with the Word. Whole congregations are sometimes affected that way but not often. Well, who knows? Maybe it depends on whether a whole congregation is especially in need of the Word. What congregation isn’t, really? Maybe it’s about whether anyone is listening.Folks at All Saints, Corpus Christi, were listening Sunday, Oct. 26. The Rev. Richard Ames’ sermon may not have been memorable for all, but I’ll bet there were more than a few who heard the Word that day. Count me among them.

It all began in an Irish pub (where else?) in a town not even on the map, the road sign for which lay in a ditch. Brother Ames meandered through the story in a way only one of his ilk might, but the bottom-line image was that of a small building full of people who’d known each other all their lives, who gathered once a week (Sunday night, late) for Guinness, song, poetry and gossip. It was an image, Bro. Ames said, of the world gone back to basics (as though those folk had ever lost their way!)

Jesus, he said, called the Judaism of his day back to basics, the basics of the law and the prophets. In Sunday’s gospel lesson, Matthew 22:34-36, Jesus recites the summary of the law for his inquisitor, a Pharisee lawyer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Bro. Ames linked this passage with the image of the Cross, an ancient symbol, he said, even before it became a central feature of Christian theology and imagery — an instrument of death in Roman times become a symbol of life. The vertical beam, he said, indicates the greatest commandment, love of God; and in return, God’s love for humanity symbolized by the blood of Christ, running from his wounds to the ground. The horizontal spar indicates love of neighbor in imitation of Christ, who hung upon the cross, stretching out his loving arms. (See The Book of Common Prayer, p. 107.)

Then there was the story of Joe the bum. He’d come to the soup kitchen but wanted to work for his meal. He swept the dining room, then mopped it. Before long, he was the parish sexton with a free place to sleep in a storage room of the church school. Then one day, Bro. Ames heard classical organ music coming from the sanctuary. It was Joe the bum, who seemed to be finding his way back to something he’d abandoned. “I’m just playing around a little bit,” Joe told Bro. Ames. “I don’t know anything about music.”

I will never again see a cross without hearing Jesus’ summary of the law. In a sense — and if I’d ever heard the cross preached this way before, I’d long forgotten it — it is the Word made flesh for me, the Word I can see and feel and imagine in ways that might not have been open to me but for the simple association of the text with the image.

Thank you, Bro. Ames. The next time you’re in town, I’d like to quaff some Guinness with you, talk a little theology, tell a few stories, sing, dance and recite poetry. Yeah, I’d like to go to church with you again.

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