BY AMOS JONES
During my 1L year, an extremely impressive member of my Harvard Law School class told me that he was atheistic. He explained that he was unlike his grandparents, that he did not attend religious services. He admitted that he saw no sense in going around a bunch of people who gather weekly “to feel good about themselves.”
I was startled that somebody so smart could be so uninformed; what he was claiming to avoid is not what happens during typical religious services, which have at their hearts the delivery of a sermon.
Effective sermons challenge. They convict. They inspire. They call listeners to self-examination, to choose the moral value systems upon which the sermons are based or, if that decision has been made, to live more consistently with those values. These are the purposes I pursue in this space, the sufficient condition, in my opinion, of a work’s qualification as a sermon.
It is a happy coincidence that my parents named me after the most famous Amos in history, the one of the Old Testament, who cried out in Iraq, told the truth regardless of the consequences, and was condemned by the authorities for his uncompromising sermons – all during the days around 760 B.C., when Uzziah was king of Judah and Jeroboam king of Israel, presiding over glittering economic prosperity and listless ethical complacency.
More recently, it was the American sermon that influenced the first patriot freedom fighters who would help fulfill the American Revolution. (That’s one of the reasons for which the Communists shut down houses of worship after the Bolshevik Revolution.) It was the American sermon that startled many ordinary black Americans into active resistance to slavery in America. (That’s one of the reasons for which the government of South Carolina virtually shut down the African Methodist Episcopal Church there during the mid-1800s.) It was the American sermon that captured America’s imagination and compelled the country to live up to its ideals. (That’s one of the reasons for which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated.)
The Rev. Dr. D. James Kennedy, whose sermons are televised around the world weekly from his pulpit in the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, has written and preached about what happened a few miles from our Harvard Law campus 230 years ago: “The clergy of New England mobilized their flock for war against Britain and stood with them when the ‘shot heard round the world’ rang out. The Rev. Jonas Clark was the most influential churchman and politician in the Lexington-Concord region at the time of the Revolutionary War. On the night of April 18, 1775, he hosted John Hancock and Samuel Adams at his home. When the warning came that evening from Paul Revere that Gen. Gage’s soldiers were advancing on Lexington, Clark’s guests asked whether the men of his town would fight. He is said to have replied, ‘I have trained them for this very hour.'”
Clergy today continue in the grand sermonic tradition, as can be seen on congregations’ Web sites.
On a recent Sunday in my hometown of Lexington, KY, the Rev. Dr. Michael Mooty, Senior Minister of Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), opened somewhat existentially: “How did you get here this morning? … By that I mean, what and who influenced you, shaped your life, so that you came to the conclusion that Christian faith says something fundamentally true about human life and that following Jesus of Nazareth is the way that you can live most fully and most deeply and most richly? How did you come to the conclusion that the church is important, important for the growth and nurture of your own spiritual life, important because together we make a difference, we transform human life and change the world?”
Sermons, you see, take up serious questions.
In his Rosh Hashanah morning sermon on October 4, titled “Decisions, Decisions, Decisions,” Dr. Anthony D. Holz, Rabbi of Congregation K. K. Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina, advised: “The High Holy Day season reminds us that decisions have consequences. This is true for us as a nation, as individuals and as a congregation.” The rabbi anchored the message in passages from Exodus and Deuteronomy, reminding congregants in this home of the first stirrings of American Reform Judaism: “When confronted with pressures and problems, it is very important to make wise decisions, the kind that will lead to a better future, because the alternatives are not good. Hurricane Katrina provides a compelling example. … Because leaders at all levels would not or could not find the funds to do what was needed, it is now clear that the water damage and destruction is enormous and the economic costs will be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Katrina is evidence not only of a failure of political and economic leadership but also of moral judgment. At the mouth of the Mississippi River, New Orleans is a major shipping port and tourist attraction; Louisiana is a state awash in oil; and the current wealth of the United States is without rival. But the huge income available was never permitted to reach tens of thousands of poor people who lived permanently with poverty and crime and no hope of escape. … [B]ecause (whether led by Republicans or Democrats) our Federal Government ignored repeated warnings and so permitted this state of affairs to continue indefinitely, we are all tainted by the toxic sludge of New Orleans.”
Sermons, you see, address tough issues.
From her pulpit at the Arlington Street Church in downtown Boston, the Rev. Kim K. Crawford Harvie explained two weeks ago her denomination’s tendency to rely on humanistic principles: “[Unitarian Universalists] call ourselves a living tradition; we believe in evolution and reformation, including the evolution and reformation of our faith. We say, ‘Revelation is not sealed.’ Neither doctrine nor dogma unite us; we are a free faith. There is a through-line, though, of this faith tradition, reflected in our principles and purposes, ethical teachings that express our devotion to the world, this world – not whatever might come next, but what is right here, before us.”
Sermons, you see, offer challenges to conventional thinking.
We today enjoy access to manifold sermonic traditions. Even though we all never will agree on every message or the validity of the foundational authorities, we all can appreciate that sermons often deliver on their mandate to serve as forces for collective good. And that is my aim in writing this column.
Amos Jones is a 3L from Lexington, KY. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.