Sermons That Work

Once a Young Man…, Easter 6 (A) – 2002

May 05, 2002

Once a young man mentioned to his pastor that he had a love of poetry but that he noticed poetry was never mentioned at church. “Would it be possible,” he asked the pastor, “to introduce poetry sometime into the service?” The following week the pastor obligingly produced a poem. After explaining to the congregation why she was doing it, she read the poem. No comment; just the poem. Quickly returning to the usual order of the Sunday liturgy, it was evident that she had taken care of another of those little duties that are expected of pastors. A poem had been read in church.

After the service, thinking she might have given the young man short shrift, the pastor asked him to take part in a discussion group — on the Bible and poetry. The young man jumped at the opportunity and found himself with friends in the wonderful garden of biblical metaphor. This pastor had reached out. She had, in effect, built a bridge. What are St. Paul’s words in Acts this morning? “They would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him….”

Exactly. That is what this young man was doing. In bringing his interest in poetry to the pastor, he was bringing himself to church. He wanted to be received. Trying to link poetry with the Bible, he was clearly looking for ways to link himself with the Word of God. His searching could have been ignored, and it nearly was. But the pastor built a bridge — a bridge over troubled waters, to use words from an old song. With this bridge, the pastor was able to bring the young man into the Waters of Life.

Building bridges is hard work. The process inevitably results in confronting the ever-present bridge toll (or troll, if you remember the old children’s story about the “three billy goats gruff.”) We can almost hear the voices in our heads: “It’ll take time and money to get this thing started;” or “It isn’t worth it;” or “They won’t listen;” or “A lot of wasted effort!” But this kind of bridge building is well worth it and it isn’t wasted effort. And it isn’t only the business of pastors, but that of parents and parishioners as well. Christians are all, or should all be, disciples. Bearing witness and spreading the Word is the business of every Christian, and finding bridges between the teaching of the Bible and the outside culture is necessary to aid that process.

In the reading from Acts that we have heard this morning, St. Paul gives us a good example of the productive process of bridge building. He finds himself in the rather hostile environment of Athens. It is a university city and there are many people there to challenge his words. He is clearly an alien among them. He is not one of them. There is actually a 10th century illumination that shows Paul being mocked by his audience. The name the people call him, after he begins to speak, is often translated as, ” babbler.” But in fact the Greek word of derision was really closer to the old English expression, “cocksparrow,” meaning a person who picks up scraps of what he finds around him much as a male sparrow picks up the odds and ends of straw and twigs he finds to build a nest for his mate. And it is clear that St. Paul was doing just that. He had not come to speak about the well-formulated philosophy of the Athenians. In fact, he was picking up what he could, struggling to give body to his ideas, and in doing so, he was indeed making use of the materials he found around him, of what was at hand. Although St. Paul was “speaking in prose,” his was truly a poet’s craft.

And just as there was little of the Sophist’s philosophy with which Paul could identify, there were also few elements of Greek religion or Greek poetry with which he could feel comfortable. But in speaking to the Athenians he did not choose to denounce or ridicule their beliefs or values. He did not attempt to criticize Greek philosophy or Greek poetry. Rather he confronted the people of Athens with elements of their culture and religion with which he could form a bridge. How did he do this? He mentioned a famous Greek inscription “to an unknown god” and he cited two Greek poems, one by Epimenides and one by Aratus of Soli. From these points in their culture he formed a bridge in order to develop the image of God he was trying to convey to them.

Although there is much made of the poetry of the Old Testament — the poetry of the Psalms and in the book of Job, for instance — we don’t hear much about the poetry of Jesus. This is perhaps because we have chosen a very restrictive definition of poetry — as that which is arranged in verses, or which rhymes, or both. When we accept this restrictive definition of poetry, we are ignoring the use of figurative language, the use of metaphor. Poetry, understood properly in this light, is everywhere in the words of our Lord. Jesus uses poetry, metaphorical language, to link us to worlds unseen, especially unseen in the culture that surrounds us. In fact, there was no other language that Jesus could have used. “Poetry,” one famous poet said, “makes the unseen seen.” Wasn’t Jesus trying to make us see things we couldn’t otherwise see by telling us stories about things we could see? As we read in John, “I have said these things to you in figures of speech.” (John 16:25)

Again, we need not go far from today’s readings to discover examples of powerful and poetic metaphor. In the Gospel, Jesus uses the symbol of the vine in an effort to express the relationship that exists between him and others. He is the vine and we are the branches. “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” Here, the metaphor is about incorporation; the incorporation of all of us in the Body of Christ. But who are the agents of this incorporation? We are. We must act ourselves as disciples so that others are brought into the words of our Savior. These are seeds that must be watered. Blanketing them with a hostile blast of snow is hindering and fruitless. In place of a sarcastic cultural critique, how about a little sun, a little water Then the taproots of such powerful images will go deep into our minds.

There may be much to dislike in the culture that surrounds us. It is true there is often more interest in the swimsuit issue of a popular magazine than in the figures in poetry. And often the imagery in a certain amount of modern poetry and song merely seems to meander through the materialistic malls of our country, bereft of any transcendence. But this is not always the case. No one is won through denunciation or dismissal. Just as Jesus formed a bridge between the branches and the vine and our life in him and in God, we must learn to form bridges to the secular culture that surrounds us.

The seeds of understanding and belief must be watered-as in today’s reading from Isaiah:

When the poor and needy seek
and there is none,
and their tongue is parched with
I the Lord will answer them.
I the God of Israel will not forsake
I will open rivers on the bare heights,
and fountains in the midst of the
I will make the wilderness a pool of
and the dry land springs of water….

It is often said that the Bible is irrelevant to today’s people. How can a book so filled with universal imagery be called irrelevant? Rather, it is made irrelevant by those who burn all the bridges between the culture and the words of the Bible. This is done more often by blame and denunciation. Ironically, then, those called to preach the Word are hindering its being spread by their exclusionary attitude towards the culture that surrounds them. The blamed simply withdraw, protective of what is theirs, cutting themselves off from the Vine itself.

There are, of course, materials for this kind of bridge building everywhere. It need not be done only with poetry. But as it was with the pastor in this story and with Paul, poetry may be a fine place to start. We are just emerging from National Poetry Month. What better time, with the nation awash in poetry, what better circumstance for drawing connections, correspondences, between poetry and the Bible?

In an age in which the Bible is under fire, poetry might serve as a good place to build a helpful bridge from the Bible to the surrounding culture. The pastor in this story moved quickly from using poetry to satisfy a young man’s request, to using it as a bridge, recognizing its great potential for proclamation. The materials for such bridge building are everywhere around us. We need only to stop and pick some of them up and set to work. By doing this, we are doing our part to help others forge a link to the Kingdom of God.

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Christopher Sikkema


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