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So, is there ‘heaven in ordinary’?

25 August 2023

Megan Dent reflects on living sermonically


The Sermon on the Mount as applied to a Commercial Age (vignette cartoon, March 1911)

The Sermon on the Mount as applied to a Commercial Age (vignette cartoon, March 1911)

I WAS recently asked to give a paper on “living sermonically”, a phrase that I had never heard before. In fact, I don’t think I had ever considered sermons outside the context of Sunday mornings.

To speak on the subject, I needed to decide what a sermon really was, and what qualities about a sermon we might wish to expand into the business of our everyday lives.

I began with the ideas of relationship and reference. Sermons are texts or orations in which reference is made — and a relationship is maintained — to scripture, or else to the theological tradition in some way. They are inherently relational: they rely on, and in turn uphold, the tradition of scriptural and theological engagement.

When we conceive of a sermon as a piece of thinking, writing, and/or speaking that maintains a direct relationship to scripture, we realise that what a preacher does when they read a biblical text is very similar to what a Christian does as they navigate the world — but, instead of a sermon, we have a life. In both cases, a hermeneutic is being applied.

You might say that the Christian is constantly performing a kind of hermeneutical act as they live their life: that being a Christian is to be in a perpetual state of interpretation. In the central elements of the tradition — scripture, liturgy, and sacrament — ours is a faith in which the articles of our lives become symbols and revelations of the divine nature, and we are called to interpret them thus.

For if, as Rowan Williams has suggested, the sacramental life “is not just a sort of magical attitude to things, but the belief that the material things of this world — water and bread and wine — can become precious carriers of the purpose and work of God”, then this “tells us something about how God sees history and matter, the stuff of our ordinary experience; how God is free to transfigure it in relation to Jesus”.

FOLLOWING this thread leads us to the heart of Christianity as a faith of an incarnate God. Through incarnation, an indissoluble connection is made between not only human flesh but the created world at large and the divine life. God became human, and thus, for ever more, humans knew that they were inextricably bound up in the divine project — that their bodies and their world were of the deepest importance to God himself.

This is how Frederick Buechner, the late American author and theologian, describes the suffusion of the divine in the doldrums of life: “Morning, afternoon, evening — the hours of the day, of any day, of your day and my day. The alphabet of grace. If there is a God who speaks anywhere, surely he speaks here: through waking up and working, through going away and coming back again, through people you meet and books you read, through falling asleep in the dark. . .

”There is no image too far-fetched, no combination of sounds too harsh, no spelling too irregular, no allusion too obscure or outrageous. The alphabet of grace is full of gutturals.”

It seems to me that to live sermonically is to be awake to an existence that is about receiving and interpreting God, and God’s Word, in the unlikeliest places — which is to say, right in front of us. In the hours of the day, of any day, of your day, and my day.

How very Christ-like to show up there, in the half-light of our lives, where we least expect it. There is something “sermonic” about attending to that presence of Christ — about not only noticing it, but responding to it with something productive, something creative, something that resists meaninglessness and instead insists that meaning is alive, before us and within us.

IN HIS book Domestic Monastery, the Roman Catholic priest Ronald Rolheiser writes about how our messy lives may take on the qualities of monasteries, those famously quiet, cloistered spaces. He focuses on the wisdom of the Desert Fathers who said: “Go to your cell, and your cell will teach you everything you need to know.”

Rolheiser writes: “Cell, as referred to here, is a metaphor, an image, a place inside life, rather than someone’s private bedroom. Cell refers to duty, vocation, and commitment. In essence, this is what’s being said . . . stay inside your vocation, inside your commitments, inside your legitimate conscriptive duties, inside your church, inside your family, and they will teach you where life is found and what love means.”

Just as “cell” can be a metaphor, so can “sermon”. Sermons are a way of interpreting the world and making sense of it; a way of responding to others, to events, to history, to texts, to hardship, to joy, that always connects those things back to the real presence of God. They therefore place God at the centre of any substantive interpretation of the events of life.

Metaphor has a special place in theology. As Karl Barth put in his Church Dogmatics, when God reveals himself, he does so indirectly — “not naked, but clothed, under the sign and under the veil of other objects distinct from God”. This means that to interpret the world is to see signs of God’s revelation and also God’s concealment — for this was Barth’s dialectic — and to understand our own place within that story of revelation.

THERE is something radical about living sermonically in the 21st century, an age of scepticism and disintegration. To live with reference to Christian truth is to resist the endless fragmentation of human knowledge and the pull towards apathy or resignation.

To live sermonically is to insist that there are certainties, and that these certainties concern the very deepest truths of the world. It is not to deny the reality of mystery, or the need for explanation, or the prevalence of unanswered questions. But it is to maintain that there is solidity in the history of responding to these questions with faith, and that it is worth — every day — connecting our present lives with that continuum of received truth that stretches into the past.

“Morning, afternoon, evening — the hours of the day, of any day, of your day and my day. The alphabet of grace. If there is a God who speaks anywhere, surely he speaks here.”

Perhaps, in his persistent presence under our unworthy roofs, God seeks to make preachers of us all.

Megan Dent is a freelance journalist.

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