The Gift Within Us
Several people over the last few days have asked me if I’ve seen the Pew Research study on average sermon length in congregations across the country. The study, conducted earlier this year, analyzed sermons across denominations which they released this month in advance of one of the most well-attended days of the church year.
I’m not yet sure if this was done to encourage church attendance – or remind people why they don't come more regularly.
Anyway, the average length of a sermon in the Roman Catholic tradition is about 14 minutes. And the average in the mainline Protestant tradition about 25 minutes.
So, my friends who are sitting here in an Episcopal church this evening – where we basically split the difference with a little bit of both – I take that to mean y’all better settle-in!
Honestly, I was surprised and not surprised by the study. The median length across denominations was almost 40 minutes.That is a lot of time. So yes, I’m surprised people will give so generously of what is surely the most valuable commodity we possess – our time and attention.
But then again, I’m not surprised. Because I believe all of us in the midst of our busy, complicated lives - in the midst of our quiet and yes, sometimes lonely lives – welcome the opportunity to be still, be in community and hope for the possibility of hearing some good news.
And good news is always shared through stories.
At home we have a bag of magnetic Scrabble letters next to the refrigerator. You know the letters from the Scrabble board games. I got them, as I’m sure most parents do, for spelling and reading when my daughter was younger. But now, I mostly write words or phrases that I want to see first thing in the morning – love, peace, you can do it.
Or maybe messages like – our kitchen doesn’t know how to clean itself.
But this month for a few weeks, and for my own reasons, our refrigerator has proclaimed one phrase - It’s all in the story.
My daughter didn’t notice it until she did the other morning and asked – what? What’s in the story?
Everything – I said.
But what - exactly? What is the “it” in the story?
Everything you ever need to know. The story – the story itself will always tells you everything you need to know.
She found this answer unsatisfactory and replied – well that doesn’t make any sense! And then proceeded, in one fell swipe of her hand to rearrange all the letters so they proclaim gibberish.
Which, of course, tells you tells you everything you need to know about the daily reality of the classic mother/daughter story.
It’s true, it’s all in the story. And the story is what gathers us together, again, this night.
We have a term for this, it is a discipline in my line of work – narrative epistemology. We know what we know, we believe what we believe because of stories. That’s how the big truths, the meaning of life truths are always explained. Through the stories of people’s lives.
Commandments and creeds– they don’t move us, they don’t lead us to Ah-ha epiphanies. I’ve never been in a worship service where after we’ve recited the Nicene Creed someone shouts out – Amen. I’m in!
Actually, doctrinal statements like creeds tend to do the opposite. We argue over them we hold councils. Doctrine lead to debates and arguments. Because we’re all concerned about who is right and who is wrong.
That’s how tonight’s one story has birthed almost 40,000 denominational expressions around the world, with all their varying sermon lengths.
When it comes to doctrines – like the Virgin Birth or Incarnate God or Trinity – we focus on what we believe we can prove.
But with stories we aren’t trying to prove anything. We want to share something. We want to reveal something. The details of the stories are different – but the experience – love, joy, fear, grief – the reality beneath the details are shared. That is the truth that connects us.
There is a story appointed for the worship service on the morning of Christmas Eve that is pivotal to understanding tonight’s story. You see, way back before tonight’s story of Mary and Joseph – of a baby and angels and shepherds – there was another shepherd – considered the first good shepherd who was anointed a King.
When he was a boy no one thought much of him. He was small, he was kinda the runt of the family, but God saw something in him that no one else could see. Yet. (God is always doing that).
The boy trusted God. The boy proved his strength with just a slingshot and a bag of rocks saving his people from a Goliath.
I have a feeling you all probably know that story.
And so, you know, the shepherd boy went on to become – King David – of Bethlehem long before tonight’s birth story takes place. On Christmas Eve morning we hear a story of David longing for a dwelling place for God (2 Sam 7:1-5,8b-12,14a), but in a way that is very different than the way God chooses a dwelling place for being born.
One morning King David looked out of his palace window and gazed at the ark of the covenant – the seat of God, outside covered by a tent – and thought to himself, “This isn’t right. Here I sit in a house of cedar, fit for a king, but the throne of God lives in a tent. This is no good. My God is better than that and I need to prove it.
Hey God, he prays, I am going to fix this. I will prove to God and everyone else just what kind of king I am. I will prove to God how much I love you - I will prove to God how much you mean - I will build you a house like no other!
And then, the word of the Lord returned to David - quickly - as it sometimes does – and reminded David of his story.
Hey David, God says, are you the one to build me a house? Perhaps you have forgotten who the builder is in this relationship. Do you remember all I’ve done. Do you remember that I took you from the pasture, have kept you safe. I have been with you everywhere - in every moment - in every house you’ve ever built. Because David - you are a part of my story. And in this story - I am the one who is building a house.
It is a house not made of cedar or wood or stone - This is a house made of people.
For this is where I live now, have always lived, and will live forever. David, you have nothing to prove. The Lord your God dwells with you and dwells with all the people.
Which bring us to tonight’s story a story God choosing a dwelling place with and within us.
Which is probably why when this baby is old enough to tell stories of his own – every story he tells is to remind us that God is not – out there. God is right in here – no matter what denomination you are. God's kingdom is not up there - it is right here, with us.
Which we come to know and we come to remember when we listen to and share our stories of God with us. .
Love came down at Christmas.
Love incarnate. Love divine.
Love came down at Christmas.
Love be yours and love be mine. (C. Rossetti)
This is the story of Emmanuel – God with us. This Christmas may we all seek and find the gift of Love that dwells within our story.
(Thankful for the inspiration of Richard Rohr, "Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent" 2008)