It is one of those rare Monday afternoons where there is nothing going on at church and the preacher sits – alone. The morning had its normal busyness of list making, phone calls and other contacts, but now – all is still. There is both a feeling of serenity and loneliness about it. The “mouth house” Luther described** – the church proclaiming the gospel in word and action has done its job. Sunday was full of activity. Now it is quiet. The people have left to “go in peace and serve the Lord” in the countless ways they always do so with humility; from helping a neighbor, or getting kids get to school, adding to their community life with neighbors or simply putting food on the table. All of those things, whatever they may be perceived to be, are the free gift of God’s love and grace implemented in the real world. God is good. Even in Lent beholding the cross leads to the truth that Christ is risen. The people rejoiced with acclamation. They welcomed one another and sent one another with genuine care and love. They left to meet Jesus on the road of their everyday lives. The preacher marvels at how extraordinary that is, thinking most of the people must think it mundane.
There is a bit of the “empty tomb” feel about the place on a Monday. The preacher sits in the sanctuary contemplating it, as a form of prayer he supposes. He reflects on what God might be up to in this community, and with himself. He wonders if he is getting through, or if it is all “hebel” – a wispy meaningless smoke, Qoheleth, the Preacher, the One we call Ecclesiastes, spoke of years ago, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity [Hebel hebel, all is hebel] (Ecclesiastes 1:1). The preacher sits in the quiet “mouth house.” He looks up at beams of light shining down from the windows and feels no longer alone.
A day ago the church was busy with people. They put on their best faces as they got ready for church, but he knows (as God knows) none of us are as put together as we appear. They came to worship beleaguered by a world that seems constantly stacked against them. The harder the rat race needs to be run the smaller the returns feel. It costs them: time with family; skipped rest time or saved for “later” whenever that might come; countless nights with restless sleep. For some the strain at home to keep everything going or put on pause to care for aging loved ones is slowly crushing them. Some worry about their children and if they know how much they are loved; by them; by God; by this “mouth house” gathered together each week, wondering where they are. Some just hope to get those kids through school. Some wonder when or if a new family life can begin. Some carry pain hidden to everybody else, but those open wounds run deep. Some wonder whom they are and who they are supposed to be. Some worry if they can get a job, or keep the one they have. Some worry if they can retire. Some worry about what retirement now means. Some are just trying to keep things together for everybody else. They entered God’s “mouth house” to be reassured; to be forgiven; to find some nourishment; in the songs, in the sacraments and God willing, in the sermon too. The preacher hopefully has shown them Jesus. He longs for them to know the weight of the world is not on their shoulders; that Jesus promises to make burdens light, but he doubts. “Hebel” he thinks to himself. He hopes this group can truly claim their identity in the body of Christ, to be his hands and feet to the people around them; putting to good use the freedom that is now theirs to not only tend to their responsibilities joyfully but also meet the growing needs around them generously.
The preacher gazes at the font, the altar and pulpit. That huge pulpit too intimidating for a relaxed sanctuary like this one. But he knows the stakes, and the evil one won’t rest, and prays for strength. He shouldn’t be resting either.
One of the beloved of this church gave that pulpit as a gift. Her funeral will be later this week. He considers her witness not only through the gift of a long life she lived faithfully, but what the gift of a pulpit of all things signifies. He asks the age-old Lutheran question (both of God and himself), “What does this mean?” Certainly not “hebel.” She hoped that proclamation would continue, long after she was gone. That the preaching matters. That this “mouth house” better have something to say. That the world needs to hear it. He hopes he can find the words for her.
Someone else enters the sanctuary. In a few minutes of chatting, of being “mouth house” together, of sharing some mutual consolation, they part ways, ready to face what comes next. On a quiet and lonely day, it was exactly the interruption needed. Even though he is sitting in the sanctuary, the preacher remembers that the “mouth house” takes place at any time and in any place, and while he does a lot of the preaching in this room, the majority of preaching – that is, sharing good news – takes place in all kinds of places, and all of God’s people participate, wherever they are.***
The noise of the outside traffic seems louder. Either there are more cars now on their commute back home, or the stillness of these minutes has brought new awareness. The church is a “mouth house” and we have an important message to share, but it is to our neighbors out there that we are sent to speak it. Do we see Jesus already in action among them? Jesus was constantly on the move. He still is. In the bright light of that first Easter morning the messenger said, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He is not here. Look, there is the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of your to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:6-7).
“Going ahead of you.” Maybe we don’t have to feel so far behind, so burdened, or so beleaguered. It doesn’t have to be the world against us or us against the world. It’s the world Jesus came to save, not just the church. It was Jesus who came to save the world, not you or me. It’s Jesus who does it; who does it all. The preacher whispers to himself (or is it a confession made audible to God?), “…which means it doesn’t depend on me.” Then the preacher knows his role. He remembers: “But how will they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:10) Someone must witness. All of us can be that witness. What is good news if it is not shared? What good news can one ever keep to themselves? There is no ‘hebel’ here, but the life of Christ offered for the world; offered to you and me. The weight is lifted. The preacher feels free. He gets up, ready to go home to the people waiting for him to share their family meal. He leaves the church building with some hope to draw on, having heard the sermon he needed to hear.
*Qohelth means preacher or teacher. See Ecclesiastes.
** Luther on “mouth-house” –
“Thus the Gospel is brought into this world by the apostles shortly before the last day, when Christ will enter with his flock into the eternal Jerusalem. This agrees with the word “Bethphage,” which means, as some say, mouth-house, for St. Paul says in Romans 1:2, that the Gospel was promised afore in the Holy Scriptures, but it was not preached orally and publicly until Christ came and sent out his apostles. Therefore the church is a mouth-house, not a pen-house, for since Christ’s advent that Gospel is preached orally which before was hidden in written books. It is the way of the Gospel and of the New Testament that it is to be preached and discussed orally with a living voice. Christ himself wrote nothing, nor did he give command to write, but to preach orally. Thus the apostles were not sent out until Christ came to his mouth-house, that is, until the time had come to preach orally and to bring the Gospel from dead writing and pen-work to the living voice and mouth. From this time the church is rightly called Bethphage, since she has and hears the living voice of the Gospel.” (Martin Luther, “Sermon on the Frist Sunday of Advent, 1522,” Sermons of Martin Luther, Vol 1. Sermons for Advent, Christmas and Epiphnay. ed. John Nicholas Lenker. [Online available: http://www.martinluthersermons.com/Luther_Lenker_Vol_1.pdf], Paragraph, 64-65, p. 46.)
*** Luther reflected that the gospel (or good news) comes in a variety of forms. My “go to” source for this is the Smalcald Articles:
“We now want to return to the gospel, which gives guidance and help against sin in more than one way, because God is extravagantly rich in his grace: first, through the spoken word, in which the forgiveness of sins is preached to the whole world (which is the proper function of the gospel); second, through baptism; third, through the Holy Sacrament of the Altar; fourth through the power of the keys (that is, confession and forgiveness), and also through the mutual consolation of brothers and sisters. Matthew 18:20, “Where two or three are gathered…” (Martin Luther, “The Smalcald Articles, 1530,” Book of Concord. Ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert. [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000], Section III, Part 4, p. 319.)