A Guest Post by Joseph Mangina
This is the second in a series of posts engaging with the sermons in Leaps of Faith: Sermons from the Edge. This post is a reflection upon a sermon preached at the funeral of Lucia Metella Robinson, entitled, “‘Mary and Martha, Lucia and Lazarus” (pp. 165-170). The Scriptural text for the sermon was John 11:1-3, 17-44.
There are many things I like about this sermon, beginning with its plain, straightforward style. There are no fireworks here, no verbal pyrotechnics or dazzling displays of erudition (though Rob is very erudite, not above quoting Augustine’s tractates on John or Dante’s “love that moves the sun and the other stars”; notice however that both quotes are not there to impress, but contribute materially to the sermon). While there is a place for rhetoric in preaching, what counts as “rhetoric” depends a lot on the individual preacher as well as, perhaps, on the text being expounded. On reading Rob’s sermons it’s obvious that he has found his own pulpit voice, is comfortable with it and knows how to use it with confidence. He does not draw attention to himself but to the gospel. That is already a great gift.
The title of the sermon offers a good clue as to Rob’s strategy here. “Mary and Martha, Lucia and Lazarus”—notice that Lucia is included within a list of biblical characters. Unlike the vast majority of contemporary preachers, Rob knows that he does not have to solve the impossible problem of bridging the gap between the biblical world and our own, or of drawing moral lessons from the text that we then have to “apply.” First of all, there is no gap: the gospel message embraces us, no less than it embraced the disciples, Lydia, and Paul. This also means, however, that we don’t have to work all that hard to find applications. To be sure, preaching will have its applicative moments, and we see some of that in this sermon: for example, Jesus’ weeping at the tomb of Lazarus becomes (as Augustine saw) a help to the congregation as they grieve the loss of Lucia. But ideally such application happens naturally and in an unforced way. The connections are there, and the attentive preacher will surely discover them in the course of the exegesis.
So, as I read this sermon, I really do learn something about who Lucia was and what made her such a beloved figure at Good Shepherd Church. Rob limits himself to a few telling anecdotes—entertaining the pastors of the church like “angels,” the foiled purse-snatching in New York, her fervent practice of prayer. But I learn all these things about Lucia as she is a member of that family in Bethany so beloved of Jesus. As the sermon unfolds Lucia “is” Martha, Mary, and Lazarus in turn. She is Martha in her zealous service, Mary in her heartfelt prayer, and Lazarus in her hope in Jesus in the face of death. This is not moralizing preaching, and certainly not hagiography, but just insightful figural exegesis. Rob weaves a rich biblical tapestry in this sermon, most of which consists in exegesis rather than storytelling—again a departure from much contemporary homiletical practice, where the tendency is to flatter congregations by talking about them rather than the gospel. Rob’s evangelical seriousness in this regard is a breath of fresh air.
This being a sermon on the Fourth Gospel, it is not surprising that its primary theme is love. Augustine’s address to the Lord, “You are not one that loves and then abandons,” functions as a leitmotif. I liked the quote from the Wesley sermon, whose “depths of love divine” Rob picks up in the sentence “We are swimming in oceans of love, immersed in the mystery of the God who is love.” Lucia is dead, and her friends weep, as Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. But those who heard this sermon knew that Lazarus, Mary, Martha, Lucia, and this whole sick, sad, and sorry world are immersed in the neverending love of God.