Preachers have a hard time ending sermons, says preaching professor Will Willimon. “It takes faith to end a sermon,” he says, meaning one must leave the results of the sermon to Jesus. To allow Jesus into the room in such a way as to be the one who challenges those present, to encourage and to comfort. But we preachers do have such a hard time letting go.
Which probably explains the lady who came up to the priest after church. “Nice sermon, Mother,” she told her, then added, “followed by two not-so-nice sermons.” Going on and on and on … is the temptation not only of priests, but of many people.
Same thing happens in Vestry meetings, and in lots of board meetings I’ve attended over the years. One person says something, someone else adds a different dimension to the topic, and then a third person repeats what the first two have already said. Repetition, as though repeating something makes it more important, or perhaps someone will be more likely to you than the first person who said exactly the same thing. Which is a lot like preachers. Repeating ourselves. Even repeating Jesus. Thinking our version will be better-received.
Jesus was a minimalist. He failed regularly to finish sermons. He failed regularly to finish stories. Unlike Paul Harvey, Jesus liked to hide the rest of the story. Take the prodigal son. You never find out if the good boy – the one who stayed home and minded his manners – ever overcomes his pernicious arrogance and egoism. Or, take the rich young man. Did he walk away, then turn back, realizing the mistake he’d made in deciding to go his own way? Or even decades later, did he come to the end of his story as a man overwrought by sadness, knowing that at that pivotal moment he made the wrong choice?
Indeed, moments are pivotal. Life turns on a dime, and your willingness to change, to become, to grow, and to deepen depends upon the upturn of your palms, the posture of the soul in which you yield yourself greater to something and someone greater than yourself. Who knows what difference one little minute in your life will make with regard to the rest?
Life turns on a dime, and the decisions you make today will affect your life tomorrow, the next day, and the next year. But honestly, knowing the importance of even small decisions makes the decisions too heavy – how can you bear the weight of knowing that a decision today – like the butterfly effect – will affect your life decades out? Nobody can live with such a heavy weight. Instead, like the preacher, the Christian is invited to approach decisions differently.
Like the preacher, the Christian must trust – must trust the grace of God and Jesus as the Christ that God is with her. That God guides and redeems and sanctifies even bad decisions. But second – and perhaps most importantly – it is the smallness of life that counts – living life at the cell-level. It is the one, Jesus said, who is faithful in small things who will be faithful in big things. It is the one who invites Christ into the small areas of life, who is honest and lives with integrity in the little challenges and events – who will find himself honest and full of integrity when facing the large challenges. That person is the one who wanders down the path of life with purpose and grace.
Ah, but the beauty of our faith – so simple. It is that the prodigal can come home, the prodigal’s brother can learn to love, and the rich man who left sadly can turn around. You see, the sermon isn’t finished, and neither is your story. God’s grace and love are the object and end of the story – and there is always room for grace and love.