In general, and despite the many pastors in my life for whom I have enduring respect, my expectations for any given Sunday’s sermon are low. Ok, very low. My approach is to set the bar so far down that I’m never disappointed. So long as the sermon doesn’t consist entirely of anecdotes from golf, the congregation is not exhorted to recognize the many virtues of our political-economic order, and the scripture readings are not totally negated by explanation, I usually come to the sermon’s end in a placid spirit. I can’t say that I recommend this approach, nor is it very Lutheran of me (the Word, after all, is present in faithful preaching faithfully received), but my Sunday morning realism keeps in check both my ecclesial idealism and the cynicism that is its shadow.
But, to my great surprise and delight, I heard this morning a sermon which brought together the lives of Saint Paul and King Lear in an intelligent and provocative way that also communicated some of the challenges of the Christian gospel. Both Lear and Paul are brought to recognize the meaning in their lives in and through the very transformation in which their lives are dismantled. For Lear, it is Cordelia’s hospitality in the face of his broken destitution that finally exposes the madness of his former pomp and pretense. Likewise, Paul is so stricken on the road to Damascus that he begins preaching in the name of the man whose followers he’d just been persecuting. He finds his identity, by grace, in the midst of the community gathered by God, a community that Paul’s own tireless travels will spread. Life doesn’t end in a tidy manner for either Lear or Paul, but even in their respectively tragic ends, their lives have been redeemed through a transformation that cost them both dearly.
I was left, not only challenged by the message, but grateful for a carefully crafted sermon that rose above the standard fare (without being ostentatiously sophisticated) by encouraging us to read widely and think deeply—precisely as Christians. That happens so seldom in Church that, unfortunately, it catches me by surprise.