Sunday, January 2, 2011

Envelope Sermons

Yesterday I found myself scribbling ideas for a sermon series on the back of a #10 envelope. I haven’t done that in well over a year. The envelope contained a fund-raising letter (unopened) from my seminary alma mater, so it seemed appropriate.

I start my new position as pastor of the Federated Church of Sandwich, New Hampshire, on February 1. I have been pondering how to start the pastorate homiletically. What will I preach? An introductory sermon is appropriate for my first Sunday, but what about after that?

I think I will preach on questions raised by the Apostles' Creed. The Presbyterian church we have been attending this past year recites it regularly. Saying it out loud has got me thinking about what it says … and doesn’t say.

This oldest of Christianity’s theological summaries covers the basics of the Christian faith, without getting too enmeshed in theological details. It seems like a good place to start my stint as theologian-in-residence in a small New England village.

This is an unusual choice of sermon topic for me. I am not a creedal kind of guy. Baptists have historically avoided creeds. In fact when the Northern Baptists officially formed in 1907, they voted to make the entire New Testament their denominational statement of faith, instead of the proposed New Hampshire Confession of Faith.

For me it is more important to experience God than to recite theologically correct formulae about God. But I know it is also necessary to think rationally about God. Our thoughts are – at best – human approximations of the divine mystery. But it is important to try to put our intuitive knowledge of the divine into some kind of understandable language, as imprecise as that endeavor is.

The Apostles’ Creed was written to answer questions being posed by the Christians of the first two centuries. We have similar questions. What are our answers today? Do the historic Christian answers still ring true? The questions I hear people asking - and which I ponder myself - are questions such as these:

Is there a God? Is religion relevant today? Who was Jesus and why does he matter now? Is Christianity fundamentally different than other religions or essentially the same? Who or what is Spirit? Is the institutional church obsolete? Is the concept of sin useful any longer? What really happens to us when we die?

So far I have come up with seven sermon titles for this series, which I have tentatively entitled “Questions of Faith.” They include “Does God exist?” “The Ghost of God” and “Guilt-free Christianity.” All titles and topics are, of course, subject to change. I will just have to find a bigger envelope. This one is getting kind of full.

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