When I retired from full time pastoral ministry 12 years ago, I was given a book by a couple from the church: Gilead, written by Marilynne Robinson (thank you Alison and Ernie). The book is about an “old,” retired pastor writing reflections on his life to share with his son. He muses about what to do with all his old sermons.
I quote. “My father always preached from notes, and I wrote my sermons out word for word. There are boxes of them in the attic. . .Pretty much my whole life’s work is in those boxes, which is an amazing thing to reflect on. . .I’m a little afraid of them (p.18)”.
“I think every day about going through those old sermons of mine to see if there are one or two I might want you to read sometime. . .If I had the time, I could read my way through fifty years of my innermost life. What a terrible thought. If I don’t burn them someone else will, and that’s another humiliation.” (p.40)
So, what does this old retired preacher do with all his old sermons? I read. I shred. I go through a whole mixture of emotions. I keep a few “samples”. It is not for the faint of heart.
And just occasionally something jumps out at me. Early on Monday morning (May 12) I read the Toronto Star. There is a piece by Martin Gregg Cohn about the long history of our underfunding of long-term care homes (which bear the brunt of the Covid virus). In the “common sense revolution” of the mid 1990’s, “privatization” and “deregulation” and “for- profit” became big words under premier Mike Harris. There was a 22 percent cut to social programs (today Mike Harris is chair of Chartwell retirement Residences, one of Canada’s biggest private operators. For-profit homes have by far the worst outcomes for those hit with the virus). Harris, as premier, removed minimum staffing levels, a huge factor in today’s crisis.
Later Monday morning, after a leisurely breakfast, I start reading – and shredding--old sermons. The first one I pick up is one from October 1996 – “Which Revolution – Which Dream”. A week later I use the framework of this sermon for a longer presentation at our Ministers/Deacons/Elders/Caregivers Conference in Toronto. I tell the story of Joseph, who moves from prison to being second in command only to Pharaoh. “So Joseph bought all the land in Egypt for Pharoah, because the Egyptians sold all their fields, so severe was the famine; the land became Pharaoh’s. As for the people, Pharaoh set them to work as slaves…” (Genesis 47:13-25).
I was a bit too brash, I think. I compared the Joseph story to what was happening in Ontario at that time. “Our new vocabulary is down-sizing, spending cuts, short term pain, deficits user fees, cutting the fat, privatizing, rationalization, outsourcing, adjusting the safety net”. In other words, I tried to challenge the basic framework of the so called “common sense revolution”. (I was angry that three staff positions at St. Clair O’Connor Community, our Mennonite nursing home and residence had been terminated that week because of these cuts).
I was unprepared for, but then delighted, with the blowback and spirited debate of my sermon and the presentation – both at TUMC and at the conference. There was a whole storm of discussion. For some it was my negative depiction of Joseph – surely a biblical hero. For others it was my critique of what the provincial government was doing. For others it was to loudly affirm my challenge and critiques. At Toronto United Mennonite Church, at that time we had a sermon response time after the church service. Usually we had a small group of 10 to 15 people attending. This time there were 35. One church member came to me saying, “You know Gary that I never come to these discussions – unless I am really upset and angry with what you said. Today I’m coming”.
It was kind of fun reading the Star’s analysis and my old sermon on the same morning. Maybe our unpreparedness for Covid does have something to do with what our governments unleashed in the nineties – underfunding, privatization, and neglect of the deep needs of the vulnerable. Something like Joseph unleashed back in Egypt.
Do I keep this old sermon or shred it?