Sermon for Sunday, May 16, 2010
The Rev. Adam Thomas
Words by themselves are innocuous little things, like bullets rattling around safely in the box. Then we employ these innocuous little words to order our thoughts. We combine them into phrases, sentences, speeches, lullabies, poems, diatribes. We use them to teach and to welcome and to express deep emotions that rarely fit neatly into our vocabulary. We also use them to manipulate and to control and to stoke our own fragile egos. Knowing that words surround and define us, the fact that we spend so little time choosing our words is startling. The fact that we spend so little time examining the repercussions of what we say is quite disturbing.
This is true at home, where a conversation can end in a tearful embrace or a slammed door. This is true at school, where teachers use words to encourage, and bullies use words to demean. And this is especially true at church, where we say collections of words used nowhere else in our lives. These words inspire humility and invite transformation, and yet we rarely take the time to notice the power of the words we speak here in this building.
This morning, we heard the final prayer in the Bible, the literal last words in the last book of the library that chronicles God’s interactions with all those grimy, messed up, beautiful people. “Come, Lord Jesus,” prays John of Patmos at the end of the Book of Revelation. Come, Lord Jesus. No prayer in the Bible is more fervent or more concise or more powerful. These three little words pass us by in the midst of another reading on another Sunday morning. But these three little words illustrate the fact that we rarely notice the power of the words we speak in church. We’ll get back to this final prayer in a few minutes. First, let’s explore this power that we tend to overlook.
In her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard diagnoses this blissful ignorance that affects lay people and clergy alike. She asks, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does not one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should be wearing crash helmets.”
In her colorful prose, Dillard reminds us all that worshiping the Creator-Of-All-That-Is has never been an altogether safe or predictable proposition. In our worship, we consciously commune with the foundation of our very existence, the God who transcends all thought and who, at the same time, moves within and around each of us, breathing life into our bodies and purpose into our souls. The church is not a museum for us to tour with amused and sleepy detachment; there is no frozen exhibit of doves in midair, no taxidermied Holy Spirit. Our God is no divine watchmaker who wound the universe and then left well enough alone. We worship the God who was and who is and who will be. God continues to speak creation into existence every moment of every day. But one of the things God never created is the box in which we often try to stick God, so that we can go about our daily lives secure in the knowledge that God is collecting dust on a shelf in the cupboard.
This box doesn’t exist. Any attempt to domesticate God is a severe delusion of grandeur, one that I know I’m guilty of. We worship a God who moves through our lives like the wind, uncontrollable and yet ever visible in the dancing of leaves and the billow of sails. This is the God whose name we toss about in frustrated oaths when we’re stuck in traffic. This is the God we rail at when the pain of loss wallops us in the gut. And this is the God to whom we address our praise and our prayers.
We ask God for forgiveness in the words of the confession. We invoke God’s name when we offer each other Peace. We recite the poetry of God’s grace in the words of the Eucharistic prayer. We pray for the coming of God’s kingdom in the words that Jesus taught us. After communion, we tell God of our plans to go out and serve God in the world, and we ask for strength and courage.
But how often do we stop and realize that God actually hears these words of ours. How often do we take stock of our conviction that God listens to our pitiful, halting, inadequate, wonderful prayers. Our words are powerful and transformative because we speak them to the God who empowers and transforms us. When we speak words like “Come, Lord Jesus,” are we really prepared for the transformation into which these words draw us?
This is why we need those crash helmets, of which Annie Dillard spoke. God calls us to participate in our own transformation. When we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus,” we signal our readiness to become a part of our own remaking. We discover the arduous path of discipleship, a path which Jesus never promised would be safe or easy. Rather, he promised that he would always be with us on the path, no matter the danger or difficulty. When we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus,” we notice that Christ is already here with us.
This is a comforting and a disturbing thought. Christ is already here with us guiding us and holding us up. But Christ is also here pushing us to step into new encounters that will transform us and, at the same time, transform the world. I know I can’t speak for all of us so I’ll speak for myself. Sometimes, I’m afraid to say, “Come, Lord Jesus,” because I know I might hear Jesus echo my prayer and send me where I don’t want to go. “Come, Lord Jesus,” I’ll say, and then Jesus will say: Come, Adam. Come to me here. Come to me at the prison, at the slum. Come to me when I rattle a Dunkin Donuts cup at you on Tremont Street. Come to me when I hold up a cardboard sign at the intersection. Come to me when I’m alone at the table in the soup kitchen.
Our transformations take place in those moments when we cry out “Come, Lord Jesus,” and Jesus hears us and echoes our cry with one of his own. The more conviction we have in saying those three little words, the easier will be our reception of Jesus’ call in our lives. The more often we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus,” the less often will we be tempted to sequester Jesus in the upper room or to stash him in the manger where he can’t do too much to stir our lives. In The Lord of the Rings, old Bilbo Baggins used to say to his nephew: “ ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.’ ” Likewise, when we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus,” we step into the Road of our own discipleship, and Jesus sweeps us off to those places where our own transformation intersects God’s transforming of the world.
Words by themselves are innocuous little things until you combine them into phrases and invest those phrases with meaning and conviction. The last prayer in the Bible is just three little words: “Come, Lord Jesus.” With these words, we accept Christ’s invitation to participate in our own remaking. We open ourselves up to hearing Christ’s call to go to those places and to those people who are in need of change themselves. And when we arrive, we’ll find that the Lord Jesus has come there first, and that he will continue to strengthen us in our ministry with his grace.