A Room Full of Friends: Tom Long
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 22, 2021
In this sermon series, A Room Full of Friends, I have introduced you to several people who have come to reside, figuratively speaking, on the bookshelves of my study. Over time, they have become a room full of friends. Because I value good preaching, one of my friends is Rev. Dr. Tom Long. Preaching professor at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, he is the author or editor of 14 books on preaching and worship. An ordained Presbyterian minister, Dr. Long was named one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English-speaking world by Baylor University. The following is an excerpt of a sermon he preached a few years ago at the Washington National Cathedral.
A sermon, as we all know, is made out of words and I brought some words with me this morning, but even though sermons are crafted out of words, I think it is important for us remember that in every sermon there are two powerful moments of silence. The first of these comes at the very beginning of the sermon. You may have not noticed it; it was brief and fleeting but it was there. The scripture lesson is read [perhaps special music is offered]. Then the congregation sinks back into their seats. The preacher takes a deep and anxious breath and there it is.
It’s so routine we hardly even notice a silence, but down at its depth it is an electric silence full of anticipation and expectation. What’s going on in it? I think the African American church has it right when it says in that moment of silence for everyone, for preacher, for choir, for congregation, there is the wonder: is there a word from the Lord? Amidst all the words of our culture that besiege us, is there a word that can make a difference? A word from beyond that can touch us and heal us? Is there a word from the Lord? It’s in that silence.
I love the way novelist and essayist Frederick Buechner has described this moment of silence. He writes this: “The preacher climbs the steps to the pulpit with his sermon in his hand. He hikes up his black robe at the knee so he will not trip over it on the way up the steps. He feels as if he has swallowed an anchor. The preacher deals out his sermon note cards like a riverboat gambler; the stakes have never been higher. Two minutes from now he may have lost his listeners completely but the silence in the church is deafening because everybody is listening to it. Everybody is listening, even the preacher.”
The theologian Karl Barth also talked about this moment of silence at the beginning of a sermon when he said, “When the bells in the church ring and the congregation gathers…what hangs in the air is one question—is it true that God is present? Is it true that there is a word from the Lord today?”
Now I know, I know we preachers often squander the promise of that moment of silence two sentences into the sermon, and the air of expectation has been let out of the room. I think of one of my students who was invited to preach the sermon at a worship service at the nursing home where she was serving as a student chaplain. This nursing home had worship in the big lobby of the nursing home and when she stood up to preach it was crowded with elderly people—some with oxygen tanks, some in wheelchairs. One of the gifts that God gives to people of great age is the freedom to say and do exactly what they want and so she got a paragraph into the sermon when suddenly one of the elderly women listening pulled the joystick on her electric wheelchair, turned it around, went back down the hall to her room, shouting, “Blah, blah, blah!”
We preachers can squander that promise of the first silence, but it’s amazing to me—even congregations who have been numbed into submission decade after decade, they come back the next Sunday and it’s there. The silence of expectation—maybe this time, maybe this time.
But there is a second moment of silence in preaching. If the first one comes at the beginning of the sermon, the second one comes at the end of the sermon. It is much rarer. In fact, some people wonder if they have ever experienced this moment of silence at all. If the first moment of silence in preaching is the wondering—is there a word from the Lord? The second moment of silence in preaching comes when the Holy Spirit has taken the fragile human words of the preacher and turned them into word of God.
When a word penetrates that separates life from death, wisdom from foolishness, blessing from curse and our lives are touched and transformed, when that happens, you can’t simply pick up the hymnal and go casually into the next hymn. Matthew wants us to know that this is the kind of silence that occurred at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. What Matthew says is, “When Jesus had finished speaking all these words, the crowd who heard him were astonished.”
The word in Greek is even stronger; it’s more like dumbstruck, flabbergasted, speechless. And Matthew wants us to know this is not the only time this happened in the preaching ministry of Jesus. It happened all the way through. It happened at the end of his ministry when he preached to the crowds in Jerusalem. They were dumbstruck by his words. It happened in the middle of his ministry when he was preaching to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. They were flabbergasted at his wisdom. And it happens at the beginning of his ministry when he preaches the Sermon on the Mount. They were left astonished and silent.
And Matthew tells us the reason that they were, is that Jesus did not preach like other preachers. And it created a crisis. If the first moment of silence is a wondering—is there a word from the Lord?—the second moment of silence is when there is a word from the Lord and it turns the world over and creates a crisis… Jesus did not preach like the scribes or the Presbyterians or the Episcopalians. He preached, says Matthew, as one with authority which means that his word generated a crisis. What do we do now? How do we live? Who shall we be? That’s the second silence.
Now if we listen to the end of the Sermon on the Mount we might not like it, because Jesus does not come across as the cuddly warm inclusive Jesus we have learned to love. He says instead at the end of the sermon, “Not everybody who says Lord, Lord will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who hear these words and do them, only those who build their lives around them. There will be a lot of people who will say Lord, look at me. I did wonderful things in your name. I was a very powerful person in terms of communicating what you wanted us to communicate. Look at me, Lord. And I will say to you, I don’t recognize you. I recognize only those who have built their lives around the words that I have given, who have built their lives on solid rock. If you build it on sand, the winds will come and the storms will blow, and blow you away.” These are words of judgment. I don’t want to take the sting out of them, but I don’t want us to misunderstand them either, because in the gospel the judgment of God is a good thing.
One day I was walking across the campus and one of my students hailed me and said, “Dr. Long, could I speak to you for a minute?” I said, “I’m going to get a cup of coffee, you want to go?” She did, and as we were sharing coffee, she told me what was on her mind. She said that she was serving as a field education student in a local church and that her supervising pastor was requiring her to preach next Sunday. I said, “Good.”
She said, “No. It is not good. He’s making me preach on the lectionary.”
I said, “Good.”
She said, “It’s not good. Have you read the lectionary text for week? They’re all about judgment. I don’t believe in judgment. I believe in grace. I believe in mercy. I believe…it took me three years of therapy to get over judgment. I am not going to preach judgment.”
We talked about it for a while and then we moved on to other things, and she started to tell me about her family life. She and her husband have several children, only the youngest of whom—a teenage boy—was at home and he was giving them hell. He was into drugs, maybe dealing them, in trouble with the police. She said, “Like last night we were sitting at supper, we had no idea where our son was. In the middle of supper, he comes in the back door and I said would you like some supper and he practically spit at us. He just stomped down the hall to his room and slammed the door.” She said, “I don’t know, something got into me…I’m afraid of my son physically. Physically afraid of my own son. But something got into me and I got up from the table and I went down to his room and I pushed open the door and I said to him, ‘You listen to me. I love you so much I am not going to put up with this.’” I said, Caroline, I think you just preached a sermon on judgment.
God loves us so much God will not put up with the foolishness in our lives. We have foolishly hungered for success and power and status, and God says through Jesus, that’s foolish. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice. That’s what makes life free and good. We have been those who have foolishly trusted in military might and made war on others and Jesus says that’s foolish. I love you so much I’m not going to put up with that. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the peacemakers.
As one theologian put it, do not fear the wrath of God. Fear the love of God, for the love of God will strip away everything that stands between us and God. To misunderstand the Sermon on the Mount as a series of rules is the same thing we do to the Ten Commandments. We think of the Ten Commandments as ten things we’d really like to do but God doesn’t want us to, so to please God let’s don’t. But we miss the way the commandments begin—I am the Lord your God, I brought you out of slavery into the land of freedom and this is the shape of freedom. You are so free you don’t even have to have any other gods. You have been given so much you are free not to covet what is your neighbor’s. You are free to have the Sabbath day and to keep it holy. It’s not a list of rules; it’s the shape of freedom.
I’ll tell you who I recognize, said Jesus. Those who build their lives on the shape of freedom.
When my wife and I moved to Atlanta eight years ago, we shopped around for a church. We finally decided that we would join Central Presbyterian Church in downtown Atlanta. We liked the worship, we liked their mission, we decided to join. The minister invited us and all the others who were joining during that particular season to come and meet with the church officers on Wednesday night and have dinner. So we did. We were in the fellowship hall around a square table and when dinner was done, the pastor said, I would like to go around the table and each person joining the church say why you are joining this church. Well, we did and you heard the kind of things that you would expect. One person said, I’m a musician; this church has the finest music program in the city and therefore I’m joining. Another one said, I’ve got two teenage daughters and the youth program is fantastic here and that’s why we’re joining. Another person said, I didn’t like the minister in the church I belong to and I like the minister here fine, I’m going to join. And then it got around to Marshall. His story was he was high on crack cocaine in the streets, stumbled into the outreach center and begged to be helped. The director said, I’m out of money. I can’t get you in a treatment program this month. I can do it next month, but you will stay with us, we will stay with you. She took his hand, they knelt on the carpet of her office and they prayed and he stayed. And he said I’ve been sober for three years now and the reason I’m joining this church is that God saved me in this church.
The rest of us looked at each other sheepishly. We were there for the music and the parking; he was there for the salvation.
Amidst all the words Dr. Long shared in his sermon, these are the words that give me pause: “We were there for the music and the parking; he was there for the salvation.” So, in the silence that follows, I invite you to consider one question: What are you here for?
*Cover art photo by Mohammad Alizade via Unsplash, used by permission