July 22, 2008

Jesus' Ordinary People

Our preacher this morning was the Rev. Joan Gray, immediate past moderator of the General Assembly of the PC(USA). Her presence in our pulpit prompted in me this memory.

It was late in my senior year, and we preachers-to-be were all taken aback when our pastor-teacher encouraged us not to use the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, or John Calvin in too many of our sermon illustrations. On a first take, her strong imperative seemed counter-productive, if not heretical (at least concerning Father Calvin), but she was pretty sure of herself. 

She explained.

"Everyone already knows that Mother Theresa was a saint, a hero, the best of the best. The problem is that everyone in your pews also already knows that they will never measure up to the likes of her. They are not inspired to try; instead, they stand back in awe. They admire her from a distance, unable (unwilling?) to hear the call of that same gospel for themselves." 

It had never occurred to me that too much hero emulation in the church could turn out to be counter-productive. "Instead," she instructed us, "talk about ordinary Christians, everyday Christians. Testify in your sermons to what you see God doing in the plain folk with whom your path crosses week to week. Talk in your sermons about what it looks like to follow Jesus Christ on a normal Tuesday morning. Help your people to see what this faith looks like in their everyday, humdrum lives. That is the burden we bear."

It was good advice, not the least of which because it has stuck with me a decade later. More substantially, though, her directive resonates with the New Testament. Says Paul (who we might note is not so much invested in the self-esteem of his congregants), "Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong." For Paul, there is no other recipient of the gospel besides a plain old ordinary sinner. God works in us, ordinary us, so that it will be clear who gets the credit for whatever new life flows from your story.

I'm certain Moderator Gray has a place for the great ones among us -- the Kings, the Mothers, the Reformers. Her homiletical encouragement should not be taken as a blanket disparagement of their witness. Rather, I think, she calls upon the church to thaw out its frigid hero-worship and exchange it for the more daring work of boldly imagining, week in and week out, what this Friday-Sunday bit of news might look like on a most ordinary morning day. Ordinary sinners claimed and called by an extraordinary grace. What does this look like at 10:27, Sunday evening?

That is the burden we bear.