Psalm 19 – The 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for September 16, 2012
“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork…” Psalm 19:1
O Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your presence, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
I’ve spoken the above prayer—a personally altered version of Psalm 19’s final verse—at the start of (nearly) every sermon I’ve preached.
Using Psalm 19’s conclusion is a nod to the person who most influenced my preaching style. My friend Don Fado also prayed a variation of Psalm 19:14 before his sermons. As a college student, first listening to Don, I admired his enthusiasm and vulnerability while he proclaimed the Gospel. When I became an ordained pastor, I had no qualms about “borrowing” a mentor’s use of a Psalm verse.
Using Psalm 19’s conclusion calms me prior to the unleashing of the sermon’s words. Like latching a seatbelt before driving away, it’s a habit providing security and familiarity. Without a seatbelt, I feel funny…off…incomplete. And for good reason! After all, there’s a greater chance of dying in a car crash than by a lightning strike or bee sting*. Driving a few miles for groceries or across the country can be one of the most dangerous things I do. And yet, I view preaching as a more dangerous activity. Maybe my words won’t prevent or cause bodily harm, but any preacher can craft sentences to heal souls and soothe worries. Preachers also possess the unnerving power to topple over-confident egos or pose sharp-edged Gospel questions to shred the self-serving answers of complacent pew dwellers. If a sermon can’t add to the healing of a troubled heart or pull the rug from under a narcissistic buffoon, why bother to open your mouth? Of course I’m a fool to think I could make a difference in another’s life by stringing together a few thoughts in a sermon. However, I’m a worse fool not to believe I couldn’t.
Using Psalm 19’s conclusion declares WHO is in charge. Not me. God. Do I, like a holy pizza man, deliver words? Sure, but only God knows how to make the secret special sauce . . . which is a flippant way of saying—and believing—that any sermon worth giving or hearing has a link to the divine. Often unknowingly. I’ve had folks comment, as they departed worship on a pleasant Sunday morning, that the sermon spoke directly to their needs. And before I could murmur a humble “Aw-shucks” and “Thanks,’ he or she would mention how wonderful I’d addressed forgiveness, tithing, heaven or substitutionary atonement theology (okay, nobody’s ever thanked me for that fourth example). I might still say, “Gosh, you’re welcome,” but I’d be racking my brains wondering: when did I mention any of those things they said I said? Maybe God doesn’t direct my tepid words to help another’s faith—even if what they recall has nothing to do with the words I used—but it’s only the peculiar way one person selectively listens to another. But I do believe God works in the words I cast forth . . . and I can’t control how or if another person receives them.
Here’s the thing, though.
I don’t preach much anymore.
I haven’t served a church since 2007. Sure the Bishop may call tomorrow and woo me into serving a church—but not likely. There’s a greater chance of being felled by a bee sting or struck by a fatal lightning bolt than a United Methodist official asking me to return to full-time pulpiteering.
Which is mostly my choice. I have other foolish things to do. I create and revise novels most publishers—so far—don’t give a hoot about. Each week I write these “And Yet” reflections, digitally and naïvely hurling them into the vast Internet—rarely knowing if they’re read. I feel blessed to have stumbled into a part-time job with a local hospice. There, I spend the bulk of my time on the phone with bereavement calls . . . and if I get to talk to a person (maybe 22% of the time), rather than leave a message (maybe 71% of the time**), I’ll usually say nothing more original than “how are you doing?” And then—though this is the single most important part—I’ll listen. In hospice there are “no words of my mouth,” only a desire to offer my ears and let a fellow fragile human talk or not talk.
Still, those familiar words from Psalm 19 challenge me. They are a prayer for more than a Sunday morning message.
May my words “be acceptable to you, O Lord.”
Words spoken to the next stranger I meet who might need encouragement . . . or who’ll ignore what I say or do.
Words spoken to my wife . . . though too often I take her for granted.
Words spoken when I phone a hospice family . . . who may only hear my recorded message . . . and might quickly erase me.
Words spoken because I believe, especially when I get out of the way, each moment can contain—and yet can’t fully contain—a hint of the divine.
*According to the National Safety Council, 1 out of 98 deaths happen when we’re driving, 1 of 368 as passengers; a bee and his wasp and hornet friends cause 1 in 79,842 deaths; lightning accounts for 1 in 134,906. Driving…it’s a nasty, dangerous activity.
**The remaining 7% are disconnected numbers. Okay, I’m just making these percentages up. On some days, it feels like 90% of the phone have been deactivated!