New moon of Ramadan and Elul
Beginning my fall semester with the Qur'an

Sermon conversations

Have you ever seen one of those films where something slow is sped up so you can watch it unfold: a bud opens into a blossom, a butterfly emerges from its cocoon? Standing before you now I can imagine the next 24 hours in this sanctuary in just that way: people coming and going, the energy in the room rising and falling. How the room will fill, and empty, and fill again...

One of the final assignments in the pastoral counseling intensive class I've been taking since February is to write a sermon which comes out of one of the subjects we've studied in the class. I wrote a sermon for the eve of Yom Kippur which centers around memory and death and transformation. The lines at the top of this post are the way that sermon begins.

Last night in class, I was the first to deliver my sermon to the group. It was a fascinating experience. Giving a sermon over the phone to a conference call is weirdly unlike giving a sermon in person. Though I've grown very comfortable with the conference call format when it comes to general class discussion, I found it not-very-comfortable for this purpose. I couldn't see anyone's face. I didn't have body language or visual cues to rely on, so I couldn't tell whether people were with me or not. I was surprised by how much harder that made it for me.

After I gave my sermon, everyone in the class took a few moments to tell me what had struck or moved them, and also what didn't quite reach them or what they might have wanted more of. I did my best to reflect what they'd said back to them, showing that I'd heard and received what they were trying to say. And then in more general terms we talked about the anatomy of a sermon. A sermon is basically group spiritual direction! It's a pastoral spiritual encounter; it's meant to give people an opportunity to connect with God.

It's not a chance for the sermon-giver to dazzle people with her rhetoric or knowledge. Or at least it shouldn't be. A good sermon should tell people what they need to hear, whether or not they know they need to hear it. It takes people on one step of a spiritual journey. Not usually more than one; if you try to take people on a multi-step journey, you risk the possibility that they'll be so moved by the first step that they make it that far and then stay there, unable to follow you the rest of the way.

In giving the sermon, I realized things I hadn't consciously known. For instance, the final idea in this draft is actually a major theme, maybe the major theme. And the opening image -- reprised at the top of this post -- works on more levels than I'd realized. I began with it as a way into talking about how the dynamics of the room will change over the course of Yom Kippur, and how empty the room often is during the Yizkor (memorial) service, and how I hope people will stick around for Yizkor even if they're not directly mourning. But as my classmates responded to the sermon, it became clear that they found deep resonance in the image of the flower unfolding. It's a metaphor for personal transformation, which is the work of Yom Kippur, and also the work of spiritual life writ large.

I hadn't realized I was drawing on such a deep well when I wrote those opening lines. I was just looking for a good metaphor to lead me into the sermon. But the metaphor turns out to work on more levels than I knew.

That's one of the things I love about writing, especially writing for an audience. When writing becomes communication, I learn both from writing the piece and then from carrying it into the world and seeing what comes up in response. Blogging is like that, too, though blog posts aren't meant to be delivered aloud the way sermons (and, for that matter, poems) are. Still, the writing and the conversation feel like parts of the same whole.

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