I’m finally at the point in my history of church attendance that I’m recognizing the patterns of stock sermons and things that get said over and over and over from the pulpit. Certain questions need to be answered (or asked) repeatedly, certain lessons need to be examined again and again, certain issues are the ones that Christians think about (or are supposed to think about) every day and that need to be seen from different perspectives. And thematically, these are usually the kinds of questions that all church leaders have been studying for years in their own lives and centuries in Church life, which doesn’t necessarily lend itself well to getting something new and fresh every time. And summer, when we’ve got a rector on vacation and a guest preacher who doesn’t necessarily know the congregation all that well, seems to be something of a high point for the kinds of stock sermons that I just can’t stand.
What I can’t stand about this particular kind of sermoning is mainly that it doesn’t actually challenge anything. Not only does it take on a pretty basic question, but its answer is usually the Obvious Christian Answer. It’s usually the one that Church People want to hear (sarcastically capitalized “Church People” refers, for me, to a specific kind of Christian churchgoer, the kind that fits into the classical meanings of ‘holier-than-thou’ and self-righteousness) because it doesn’t really threaten their understanding of their place in the universe and God’s expectations for them. Maybe I’m being too harsh, and maybe I have nothing to say here that is anything more than ridiculously obvious, but what gets said up there matters in the lives of individuals and emerges in the actions of those individuals when they leave the church. Part of what frustrates me about these kinds of sermons is that it’s impossible for these kinds of answers, with the comforting smugness and the reassuring sense of certainty, not to come from a place of social power and blindness about the nature of that social power. More than blindness, even, outright refusal to accept the nature of that social power and the great, Spiderman-esque responsibility that comes along with it.
I’m starting to feel like the specifics of the sermon that have been running through my head are less important than that general point about how the easy answers relate to power, but I suppose my generalities make little sense without a grounding reference point. In this case, it was a Power of Prayer sermon, with three examples drawn from the preacher’s life of miraculous interventions by God in direct response to prayer and faith. I got an informal version of this sermon as well from a Church Person who just saw a loved one recover from a life-threatening illness and who attributes this person’s recovery directly to all those who were praying for her. And I hate that I feel this uncharitable sense of frustration and focus on that woman’s smugness, because of course she’s grateful to see this recovery. But when she talked about the power of prayer, she explicitly mentioned all the people who didn’t heal from this illness, and spoke with a sense of having a trump card over these others, these poor lost souls who, the implication is, didn’t have prayer on their side. It felt, to me, like she was articulating the “Gotcha” moment of having found an irrefutable argument for her own rightness. When I’ve expressed this frustration to others who know this woman, they’ve pointed out that if she were to examine it, she likely would have to see this flaw, because she’s watched other loved ones not recover with just as much prayer and loving attention, but the connection doesn’t seem to stick.
And that’s the incredibly obvious problem with this particular sermon – what about when the healing doesn’t happen? This is the question that non-Christians or seekers or people who are struggling ask all the time about Christian theology. If we’re going to talk about miraculous healing, responses to prayer and interventions against an unjust, unfair world, without mentioning the continued presence of that injustice, illness and pain, what the hell are we saying to the person listening who is in that kind of pain and for whom no miracles are forthcoming? I obviously have no answers to this question, though I could point to dozens if not hundreds of attempts by people who’ve tried, any one of which makes a better sermon than a simplistic, reductive and omission-filled claim that “prayer works”.
The comforting thing about “prayer works”, and the reason I think it can’t come from anywhere but a position of power, is that is presents and reinforces the illusion of being in control. It’s “The Secret”. It’s the basis of bootstraps theology of “God helps those who help themselves”. It isn’t really about God. The way it’s expressed always feels, to me, like providing us with something that we can do to assert a sense of order over the chaos. And I recognize that overcoming that sense of helplessness in the face of incomprehensible experiences and big, all-encompassing pain matters, but there’s a lot of nuance that has to come into those much, much more complicated questions from a psychological and theological perspective than “Don’t worry, it’s okay – here’s a series of examples from my life where prayer has worked. I asked for something and I got it. Don’t change what you’re doing. Don’t expand your sense of justice. Just believe more. It really is true that God likes our kind better”.
In the old “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” model, these sermons do neither. And even on summer vacation, I’m coming to expect better.