As I approach the eighth anniversary of my ordination, I have arrived at a rite of passage that more seasoned clergy have encountered many times: my third lap around the three-year lectionary cycle. With the turn at Advent 1 into Year A, I will be able to look in my archive of past sermon manuscripts to find not one, but two, and (thanks to a few sermons from my seminary days I’d mostly rather forget) sometimes three sermons staring back at me.
I also have the opportunity now to be serving at my third congregation after spending three years at the previous two. This has had a certain benefit to me as a preacher: Looking back at the fruits of many a nervous, hard-wrought weeks of frantic sermon-completion sessions lets me separate the “gold, silver, and precious stones” from the “wood, hay, and straw” of my homiletical efforts without anxiety. This also means that I’ve also been able, at times, to re-purpose these sermons for new contexts, sometimes twice.
Now, if I may anticipate your objections, rare indeed is the occasion in which I would simply re-use an old sermon without adapting it to fit new circumstances. This is mostly re-working, bringing my past work into the light new contexts provide. My first parish was a wealthy, demanding, highly educated cardinal parish on the border between the affluent Dallas city center and one of its even more affluent near suburbs. My second parish was a lovely, at times challenging, racially and socially diverse mix of parishioners in a rapidly changing, gentrifying corner of the same city. Now I have the joy of serving a lovely rural Indiana parish with an average Sunday attendance that hovers just on the border between double and single digits in a town of hundreds. The lives, social locations, political opinions, and concerns of the parishioners in each place differ vastly.
There have been numerous times when I’ve opened up a file from three or six years back to find that the things which once exercised me in a text or occupied the Zeitgeist of the context into which I preached it have simply been either too foreign to my present understanding or my parishioners’ lives for me even to be able to re-purpose old sermons for new contexts. Back to the drawing-board I go. These experiences have been instructive to me: the exegesis I worked so hard on the first time around, the troubling developments in the news that had me so unsure of how to address the faithful with a word of encouragement or challenge from the Scriptures… reading these words again snaps me back to those moments of preparation, to the lives of the dear people who had entrusted me with the solemn task of interpreting and preaching to them the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God. I remember them; I miss them. And sometimes I cringe.
I remember my first time preparing a sermon from the apocalyptic words of Advent 1 in-between Thanksgiving celebrations with my in-laws as riots raged and teargas flew across our television screen from Ferguson, Missouri. I remember needing to come to terms, for the first time in a meaningful way, with the distance between my emotional response, conditioned as it was by my suburban upbringing by white parents with multiple graduate degrees, and the feelings the many black parishioners in the pews may have felt about the same events. I tried my very best. I had, and still have, a lot to learn about empathy and the ways in which the hopes and fears we feel in the face of the apocalyptic promise that “when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates” (Mark 13:29) differ according to the signs of the times “these things” represent to each of us. Sometimes the Word of the Lord speaks differently to each of us, depending on who, or where, or when we are. Thanks be to God.
And then sometimes, I find that this same eternal Word has an enduring, unchanging call to hope, faith, and endurance that does not vary with shadow of turning, no matter the circumstance. Just a few weeks ago, I opened the sermon I gave on the days immediately after the last presidential election three years ago. I knew that I was addressing a room of Trump voters and never-Trumpers, young liberal entrepreneurs and lawyers, along with handymen, nurses and food service workers, recent immigrants and the descendants of immigrants from centuries past. It was a tough room to read correctly. I knew that tensions were high. I had a sense that the delicate balance of fellowship and Christian love this community of faith had cultivated could be threatened by a careless word from their priest and pastor.
I opened this sermon again a few weeks back and knew that the tensions my rural Indiana parishioners felt and faced were not the same in that moment. But I knew that this sermon I had preached three years prior about a call to faith, hope, love, and endurance still contained a core that had nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with a divided society — nothing exclusively to do with them, that is. Rather, it was a sermon that, with significant reframing, could speak to the anxieties this small rural parish felt in the face of the erosion of the institutions in their small town, symptomatic of the larger-scale disintegration of our society. The local military academy — a historical landmark and a center of the town’s small economy — had closed. It was formerly an Episcopal school, the chapel of which this parish had worshipped in for decades, now relocated to a nearby house in a neighborhood, filled with “For Sale” signs, that had previously served as a parish hall for the once-thriving congregation.
Once Jesus’ words about the Temple that “Not one stone shall be left upon another” (Luke 21:6) spoke to the surprise and anxiety of parishioners in fear about the results of the last presidential election — along with those who welcomed the change with joy. These words called them all to endure by faith and steadfastness in God’s eternal plan: “By your endurance you will gain your souls” (Luke 21:19). Three years later, to a parish in rural Indiana, this message spoke the same call to endure, but for different reasons and in different circumstances. Now, in the face of the disappearance of institutions these parishioners had known for generations, stones were falling in their community, and these words yet called them to endure with faith according to the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God.
From this, I’ve learned something about the living word of the Scriptures, and something about the eternal Word of God. First, apocalyptic texts generally invite a comparison to the circumstances of the present day. This is how they have always spoken, first to the hearers of Jeremiah, then to the readers of Daniel, and on to the centuries of Christians and Jews who have read these words in their own days. For Christians like John, borne along in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day by one like a Son of Man to see visions of heaven and to write letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor, this is how he read these same Jewish texts anew in the face of persecution. This is how Christians since have found these tests to speak of the hope to which they have been called. This word is a living word, double-edged, dividing and divining the different ages that have rolled like raging streams beneath the bridge these words have spanned between God’s saving deeds past, present, and future.
Secondly, and finally, the eternal Word has an enduring value to the life of faith that is ever-green and unchanging. The Gospel of the Lord does not change, though its proclamation may sound forth in new places to new faces in every era. From this, I am learning, as I make another lap around the lectionary, to continue reading this word and interpreting it, but also to let the words I’ve once spoken to others speak again to me. I may grow to know these Scriptures more intimately. I may grow to see their beauty and power more profoundly amidst the changes and chances of this life. I may find better ways to preach them, and I may find that no matter how much I read and proclaim them I may still fail to account for their vastness. But the Word of the Lord will never change, thanks be to God.
Fr. Paul Wheatley is a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas and a Ph.D. student at the University of Notre Dame.