I have to be honest. I have never cared much for the whole “take up your cross and follow me” thing (see Matthew 16:24). I always get hung up on the “take up your cross” part, because most of the time I really do not know what that means. Or maybe it’s because theologically, if I am honest, I have a rather negative reaction to cross language. It’s not simply that I have issues with gruesome deaths. Or that I am one to eschew the meaningfulness of the crucifixion. But the ubiquity of the cross and our rather bland and rote statements about it have tamed the rather complex nature of its significance.
I have a feeling that there are people in our pews who might have some similar thoughts. How does Jesus’ cross have anything to do with life today? Sure, there are necklaces, rings, pendants, bracelets, but when asked “what does the cross, Jesus’ cross, mean to you?” how will we respond? What we confess about Jesus and his cross better really matter and make a difference for our lives, for how we think about God, and for how we live. If it does none of this, then I wonder if we take Jesus seriously at this point. I’m quite sure that Jesus’ statement here is not theoretical or rhetorical but that Jesus actually wanted the disciples to live it and be it.
Too much of our biblical interpretation and preaching hides behind theologically accepted tenets. Acceptable to whom? And in what circumstances? Atonement theories are a case in point. There are certain things that we think we should say when it comes to the cross that if we don’t, we are not a true “fill in the blank.” What does the cross really mean to you? I mean really? Not what you think it should mean because you’ve been told what it should mean, because you are a Christian, because you go to church, because you are a preacher, because you are worried about what others will think, or because you fear that you might be discovered as some sort of imposter believer.
So, I am going to answer my own question. The cross doesn’t do much for me. Call me a heretic. That’s fine. I’ve been called one before and survived, quite well, in fact. Say that I have a problematic atonement theory. That’s also fine. My pneumatology has already been questioned and I survived that, too.
Here’s what I mean.
When it comes to what matters to me theologically the life of Jesus means more than his death, in part because of scholarly interests in the past few years that have caused some serious personal theological reflection. At the same time, I resist “take up your cross” as a justification for suffering. I reject “take up your cross” as some sort of victimization or martyrdom for its own sake. I renounce any claim where I could imagine coming anywhere close to Jesus’ sacrifice.
Yet, if the cross is a symbol for defiance of empire? If the cross is representative of the absolute certainty of the incarnation? If the cross is a model for resistance to the status quo? If the cross is a reflection of our human propensity to eliminate the voices that call for justice, for mercy, for compassion, for love? Well then, I am all for the cross. And I will readily take up that cross, any day.
Just what cross are you willing to take up? And which one are you not?
I find it interesting that Jesus says, “take up your cross and follow me.”
Taking up your cross is not an individual act that validates your faith or demonstrates your willingness to go the distance or a statement of self-sacrifice or self-denial. The cross has everything to do with community. Take up your cross and follow. To follow, by definition, demands something or someone to be followed. Follow me – how do you answer that? Literally following Jesus to the cross, following the person? Isn’t it also following those things that Jesus preached and taught? When Jesus says follow me, what Jesus do you follow? What parts of Jesus’ ministry and teachings do you follow?
One of the things preachers don’t get many opportunities to do is to engage some theological self-reflection. Give yourself some time this week, block it out in your calendar. Take yourself to a coffee shop, to a wine bar, a brewery, out for lunch. Or just be in a place that is comfortable for you. If someone asks to meet with you during that time, say, sorry I have an appointment – you have an appointment with yourself, and with God, trusting that God, Immanuel, is going to be present in your honest exploration of your theological thoughts. Our preaching needs theology time. We are better preachers when we have occasions for assessment and reassessment of where we are theologically. Then we not only know what we bring to the text, but also what we are willing to take up and follow ourselves.
A “cross and follow” kind of life is not a one-time decision but demands and deserves ongoing discernment and deliberation. Note Matthew’s slight change from Mark’s version, “for my sake will find it” (16:26) rather than “for my sake will save it” (Mk 8:35). Thinking about your “cross and follow” life, you never know what you might discover.
Those of you who listen regularly to Sermon Brainwave, the weekly podcast text study that I co-host at http://www.workingpreacher.org with my colleagues at Luther Seminary, Rolf Jacobson and Matt Skinner — and if you don’t, why not? You should. We are the Car Talk of the preaching world! — know that in January of 2013 I led a group of students on a trip to the Holy Land. For a number of weeks after that trip, more weeks than my colleagues likely appreciated, my “go to” response for virtually every text was, “Well, when I was in the Holy Land … ”
My references to that trip have tapered off considerably over the last year, but with this week’s passage from Matthew, I just can’t help myself.
“When I was in the Holy Land … ” we stayed at a kibbutz on the east side of the Sea of Galilee. We could see Tiberius from the shore. From that location we traveled to various places where Jesus “could have” fed the 5,000, the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes; where Jesus “possibly” preached the Sermon on the Mount, the Mount of Beatitudes; where Jesus “could have” hosted breakfast for his disciples, the Church of the Primacy of Peter. These sites were certainly significant. I will never forget listening to the Beatitudes on that mountain overlooking the Sea of Galilee.
But the moment during that leg of the trip where a biblical story literally came to life was our last day at the kibbutz. In the morning, the winds started up; trees bending from the force, lawn chairs scattered on the shore, and whitecaps on the sea. Suddenly, there I was, in the boat with the disciples. So this is what it would have been like? Our guide, Johnny, said wind storms like this were sudden and frequent, a characteristic feature of the weather pattern for that region.
In reading the story for this week, however, I realized that the disciples don’t seem to be too afraid of the storm, that this is not the same story as Matthew 8:23-27, and if Johnny is right, and I am sure he was, that these fishermen should be used to these kinds of storms. I also noticed that Jesus doesn’t actually rebuke the winds in this passage. He just shows up.
So, of what, then, are the disciples actually afraid? They think Jesus is a ghost, some sort of phantom, and that would probably scare me, too.
“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid,” (14:27) are Jesus’ words to the disciples. Jesus will say the same thing in Mark (6:50), also the boat scene. In John, “take heart” appears in Jesus’ last words to his disciples before turning in prayer to the Father (16:33), “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (16:33 NIV). Why “take heart”? What is Jesus saying to the disciples with these particular words? Only Matthew’s version includes the dialogue between Peter and Jesus and Peter’s attempt to walk on water.
Peter thinks he can walk on water. What will that prove, anyway? How is Peter being able to walk on water going to help him believe that it’s really Jesus? Maybe Peter hopes that by stepping out on the sea, that will be the act of courage he needs for faith. Maybe Peter wonders if he will be convinced of Jesus’ promises if he thinks big. Maybe Peter will believe in himself if he is able to do what Jesus does.
“‘Lord, if it is you … Is it really you, Jesus? We need to know. How can we really trust that you will be with us always, to the end of the age?”
And I have in mind that Jesus’ answer would be something like, “Well, it’s certainly not because you will be able to walk on water, if that’s what you are thinking, Peter.”
Another way to translate Jesus’ words to the disciples is, “have courage” and it’s also in the present tense. Jesus is not saying “buck up, be brave, Peter. Have some fortitude, for crying out loud. Where’s your gallantry?”
Is courage the same as bravery? Courage seems to be connected to faith in this passage. Unlike Mark’s version, Jesus follows Peter’s less than successful try at walking on water with, “you of little faith. Why did you doubt?” How is courage connected to faith?
The root meaning of the English word “courage” is the Latin cor and the French coeur — “heart,” which may explain English translations that vary between “take heart” and “take courage.”
What is Jesus saying to Peter, to his disciples? I wonder if Jesus is saying to them, to us, faith means living out of your heart. You are going to have to lead, live, and love with your heart, Peter. You know who I am. Deep down in your heart, you know me and you know I will be there. Trust yourself. Trust your heart. Jesus’ words call Peter back to himself — to his truth, to his heart, to his faith. And no valiant feat is necessary to verify what Jesus wants Peter to see that is already true about who Peter is.
I have a feeling that this is something preachers need to hear as well. It seems that only impressive statistics substantiate Jesus’ presence these days — that you are successful in your ministry if attendance numbers look good, you have a large staff, a nice, big church building, an impressive budget, or some other outside acknowledgement of your worth. Trust yourself. Trust your innermost space, your heart, that what you are doing matters, that what you preach makes a difference, and that truly, Jesus is with you and trusts you. Sure, there will be times when you feel like you are walking on water, or at least think you could, no problem, and that is a great feeling. But in the end, only Jesus can manage such a miracle. The daily life of ministry is not extraordinary acts of faith, but hoping for a little more than “little faith.” Take courage.
Think about it. How many of Jesus’ miracles are recorded in all four Gospels? Let’s count. It shouldn’t take long because the feeding of the five thousand is the only one that made the cut (cf. Mark 6:31-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:5-15). That fact alone should encourage pause and reflection when it comes to preaching this miracle that most certainly put Jesus on the map. Why this story? What is so important about it? What does it reveal about God, about Jesus, about who we are called to be in the world that each of the evangelists said, “Hey. Now that story is definitely worth remembering.”
Spend some time this week pondering these questions. For yourself. For your congregation. For real.
Of course, there’s the obvious answer: this is a pretty awesome miracle, after all. It is an encapsulation of provision and the poignancy of need. Sometimes we forget that to be provided for and to have our needs met are indeed miraculous moments themselves.
Taking away the reality of miracles does no one any good. We need them.
At the same time that it is Jesus’ provision for the crowds, to what extent is it also miraculous provision for Jesus’ disciples? There is a sense that this story sums up discipleship. An invitation to action and involvement. That discipleship is not just about following but participating. In this provision of food for many, the disciples witness that the promise of provision is their future.
And Jesus signals this promise with one pointed phrase, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”
In other words, you do it.
Of course, Jesus then miraculously expands the rations. That is certainly a miracle. And I am not suggesting that the miracle is better understood in the disciples sharing so as to explain how the miracle happened. Taking away the reality of miracles does no one any good. They exist. We need them. And Jesus gets that.
But I do think that the meaning of the miracle is more than the miracle itself.
In that one simple statement, Jesus is saying to his disciples, “Live already. You can’t sit back and watch me do all this awesome stuff. Live it. Live life. I am counting on you. I need you.”
This past week, a colleague and friend, Deanna Thompson, shared on her Facebook page a recently published article. Deanna was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer five years ago and yet, here she is, living. And living life fully and extraordinarily, called to new places of teaching and witness and vocation and discipleship because her illness. She writes, “For too many who live in the aftermath of traumatic events, a tidy, linear cross-to-resurrection narrative simply doesn’t map the reality of their undone lives.”
This made me consider Jesus’ directive to his disciples in a different way. I wonder if Jesus is trying to disrupt our tidiness, our penchant for cause and effect. The disciples are thinking linearly. Practically. “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” A deserted place? Where will the food come from? Late? Time to go home. We are done here. What more do you want? And come on, Jesus. These people need to fend for themselves.
This is a major lesson in discipleship, Discipleship 101, to be exact. This is what I love about Matthew. OK, I know last week I said he’d be my dead last choice if I had to rank the four. But here’s where I get it. Discipleship is from the get-go. For Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount is the “no going back moment” as far as I can tell.
Discipleship is rarely tidy or convenient. What you will be asked to live — and when — may just be a miracle itself.
As Deanna writes later in her post, “If communities of faith are to help make it possible to ‘live like we’re dying’ for those of us haunted by the lingering, unpredictable effects of traumatic events, attention must be given to the space between death and resurrection. That space where we might experience healing and redemption, but sometimes only faintly. Where people go on even when they can’t.”
I suppose our particular Christological commitments will determine whether or not Jesus knew he was going to die. At the same time, one can’t go around being Jesus and think that no one will notice. In fact, if you do, you can expect to be targeted for arrest and elimination. The lives of the disciples became undone the moment Jesus showed up on that mountain. Experiences of “undoneness” make up what it means to be a disciple.
Surprisingly, unexpectedly, the feeding of the five thousand gives witness to what the space between death and resurrection looks like. For the crowd. For the disciples. Maybe even for Jesus. Where there is the knowing of profound lack, but experience of provision. Where we exist in the meantime of life, but can see, albeit dimly, solutions. Where and why and when we think we can’t go on, but then we do.
Therein, perhaps, is the miraculous.
Anyone out there tired of parables yet?
To be honest, Matthew’s plethora of parables is perhaps my biggest problem when it comes to the first Gospel. Some of you know that were I to play the “stranded on a desert island” game, my Gospel of choice would be John. Matthew would come in dead last. It does make you stop and think why we are drawn to particular stories of Jesus — our theology? Our Christology? Our soteriology?
Or, maybe I just have a problem with parables.
It’s not that I need Jesus to be more direct. After all, the Jesus of John can be equally perplexing. I also worry that with so many parables told in a row, we tend to want to find their consistency, some shared theme, a nugget of truth, connect the dots, the primary point that they are all trying to make about the kingdom of heaven. But then to what extent do we end up smoothing out their specificity, ignoring the details that themselves are worth preaching? Or, maybe when there’s parable after parable I tend to lose my bearing. Which one is it, Jesus? I have to admit, I am a little jealous, or maybe suspicious, of the disciples’ certainty in 13:51. Really, they understand “all of this”? Way to go, disciples! I sure don’t.
Yet perhaps that is exactly Jesus’ purpose in telling parables — and a lot of them. You never know what might click for you, when the connection will happen, for your faith, for what you believe. What illustration, what analogy will resonate? Each day is different when it comes to being a disciple, isn’t it?
Maybe there’s a logic in Matthew, or better, a logic about Jesus.
After all, how does one depict the kingdom of heaven? The possible pictures of the kingdom of heaven are certainly not exhausted by Matthew, not even by Jesus. No one impression will suffice.
The promise of the parables about the kingdom of heaven is that even when the kingdom is not seen, it is near.
Several years ago, Starbucks Coffee launched a campaign called “The Way I See It.” Various quotes from different sources were printed on the coffee cups. I am not sure of the exact marketing strategy behind the promotion or if it was successful, but I do recall remembering and writing down “The Way I See It” #230:
“Heaven is totally overrated. It seems boring. Clouds, listening to people play the harp. It should be somewhere you can’t wait to go, like a luxury hotel. Maybe blue skies and soft music were enough to keep people in line in the 17th century, but Heaven has to step it up a bit. They’re basically getting by because they only have to be better than Hell.” — Joel Stein, columnist for the LA Times
How we imagine what the kingdom of heaven is like depends a lot on what we need the kingdom of heaven to be, which frequently hinges on factors we’d rather ignore. Our penchant for certain visualizations of the kingdom of heaven have less to do with what the Bible says and more about what’s at stake for us theologically. Our language about the kingdom of heaven tends to be attached to how we think God should act and not how God has already acted. Our assumptions about the kingdom of heaven rely heavily on our system of rewards and not on God’s choice to bless.
Several strategies for preaching these parables come to mind that suggest preaching this week might be less descriptive and more dynamic. That is, a sermon will model curiosity and creativity around the kingdom of heaven and not simply state facts about it. Preaching could invite a kingdom imagination. Not explanatory sermons that say this is what kingdom is, but exploratory sermons that suggest this is what it could be today, here and now.
Encourage your parishioners to make up their own parable about the kingdom of heaven, later that day, maybe later that week, and affirm that in doing so, they are making a critical connection between a perceived theological need and the immediate contexts of their lives. In other words, talk about the fact that they are not just making something up, something that sounds kind of nice, but that they are giving witness in that moment to a specific expression of faith. They are offering testimony to what the kingdom of heaven needs to be in light of their individual reality. Or perhaps, they are acknowledging a communal, national, or global situation that necessitates the articulation of the presence and promise of the kingdom of heaven.
You could preach on just one parable and really work it for all of the facets it reveals about God and about our human condition, both personally and corporately. Based on your description, you could then model what you invited your parishioners to do. Re-language the particularities of the parable for the purpose of today. Act out an exercise of imagination and in doing so, you are demonstrating that interpreting the Bible is not simply accepting its truths, but is about embodying the way in which truth can be revealed — in conversation, in inquiry, in creativity. And isn’t that the nature of a parable? The parables don’t argue for truth itself but show that what is true about God and about ourselves might be disclosed in the act of our wrestling with, resisting, and being pulled into truth.
In the end, be assured that the reason Jesus spends so much time explaining the kingdom of heaven is because we need to be reminded that it’s there even when it seems so excruciatingly absent. The promise of the parables about the kingdom of heaven is that even when the kingdom is not seen, it is near. That’s a promise even a preacher, and sometimes especially a preacher, needs to hear.
You can also find this blog at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=3285
Good and evil side by side, co-existing without set checks and balances, without resolute criteria for adjudicating which is which, without a sense of qualifications and quantifications that might provide certain conclusions to ease our moral consciences? Perhaps one of the most challenging and problematic issues in the history of theological thought. Where does evil come from? Is it as simple as assigning it to an alternate being? Is it as easily determinable as we tend to think? Is it so readily recognized as we want to believe?
These are the theological questions that Matthew’s parable seems to raise. A first step in preaching this week is to acknowledge these difficulties, to dwell in the discomfort, and to resist any definitive test to secure answers that surely demand far more deliberation than a twelve minute sermon can give justice.
We are really good at assessing what is good and what is not with the effortless phrase, “the Bible says.” But, the problem with evil? With sin? Is that it looks pretty darn good. So close to what seems right and virtuous. So close to our vision of what we imagine good should be.
Matthew’s parable this week is in one sense a warning. Lest we think we have it all figured out how to judge evil from good, moral from immoral, right from wrong, virtuous from unvirtuous, think again. According to whom? When? In what contexts? By what standards? This is the time for some prophetic proclamation. Pointing out the places in our history, in our present, when evil was and is justified biblically, theologically, morally, socially. This alone is worth preaching.
Such is our human inclination, is it not? Our penchant for judgment and condemnation. For declaring the future of those we deem somehow inadequate in faith and Christian life. For assuming maleficence in another as if our own actions are above reproach.
This parable is one that should stop us up short. Really? Who do you think you are? God? Yet many do. We do. A lot.
I recently shared a saying on my Facebook page that appeared in my news feed, “When they discover the center of the universe, a lot of people will be disappointed they are not it.”
When we start going down the road of making our lot in life electing what is good and evil we may very well discover that others will make similar conclusions about us.
Matthew’s parable invites some honest preaching about the existence of evil. When was the last time you listened, really listened, to how your parishioners talk about evil, about theodicy? Call attention to the ways in which these realities co-exist. How difficult it is to determine the difference until the point when it’s too late. That it is ok. Because in the end, the parable promises that God’s job is not ours. Exuberant efforts to eradicate evil may very well end up only in questioning our own eschatological actuality.
This parable is a description of a reality we’d rather not admit. Maybe even a description of a God in whom we’d rather not believe. Can’t God do something about the enemy, and now? What is God good for anyway if God can’t see to it that evil is eliminated? The parable of the wheat and the weeds is not told for the sake of action but for the sake of honesty. Our presence in the world as Christians is not about a full-blown plan to get rid of evil at every turn.
That our calling as disciples is to seek out and purge sin and evil? Frankly, I don’t want that job. I don’t trust myself. But I do trust God. Our presence in the world as Christians is to be the good. To live the Gospel. To be the light. To be the salt. Because we are, says Jesus to his disciples. This should be good news. This parable calls us simply to be. To be the good in the world with the full awareness of what the resistances will be. To be light when darkness will surely try to snuff us out. To be salt when blandness and conformity and acceptability are always the easier paths.
Maybe you are wondering, but aren’t we called to call out evil? To resist the forces that would deprive those who hunger and thirst for righteousness? To make sure that those who mourn are comforted? To uplift the poor in spirit? Yes. Absolutely. But perhaps not in this sermon. There will be other texts and other sermons that will have us lead a charge for this kind of action.
Perhaps in this instance we believe in the text and take our cue from Matthew’s vision of God. Immanuel. “I am with you to the end of the age.” We are called to just to be. And in order to be we trust that God is with us.
Indeed, God is.
Birds, Thorns, and Other Surprising Responses to God’s Word
(this blog can also be found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx)
The “Word of God” is an elusive and complicated topic, isn’t it? What comes to mind for people in the pews when they hear “Word of God”? What do they picture? What do they envision? A big, dusty Bible on a shelf in the family room that they never read? A worn and tattered-paged confirmation Bible on their bedside table that they read every night? The lessons that are printed in the bulletin every week that they then toss in the garbage or the recycling bin if there is one? Just what is the Word of God anyway? Do not be afraid. I am certainly not recommending that you preach a sermon on the doctrine of the Word of God. I suspect that would be incredibly boring. And God forgive us when we make the Word of God boring.
But I do speculate whether an answer to that question would be anything other what seems obvious – the Word of God is a book or words from the Bible printed somewhere, whether in a bulletin, an insert or on a projection screen. The Word of God is words.
I wonder if anyone might conjecture that the Word of God could be an experience. After all, the Word of God did become flesh. Those who met Jesus in his ministry did not just think, “Wow, he’s got some good stuff to say.” No, somehow the words and the encounter were inseparable. The words could not be understood without the particular experience in which they were heard.
The biblical passages for the week of July 13, 2014, particularly from Isaiah and Matthew, suggest that the Word of God is an experience. And listening is the key to that experience.
Remember, the Bible was written to be heard. It’s full of rhetorical devices from which preachers could learn a lot about how to communicate effectively. Walter Ong describes the biblical writings as “textualized orality” or “residually oral.” Sometimes we forget that the Bible was first and foremost an oral experience until translations started showing up in earnest in the 15th century. No one got a copy of Galatians in the church newsletter. When Paul’s messenger, perhaps the scribe that dictated Paul’s thoughts, arrived at the church in Galatia, there was a full church meeting, maybe even with a potluck to get more people to come. Knowing Paul, I’m quite certain this was not his only correspondence with the Galatians. But this particular letter included in the New Testament somehow stood out and said something important about believing in Jesus that reached beyond the Galatian church. It was not a systematic treatise on the justification by faith. It was a real letter to a real church with something really critical at stake. No one gets to ponder Paul’s words in the privacy of their home. No one is afforded the opportunity to say, “interesting, Paul. I’ll have to think about that and get back to you.” They have to deal with it then and now and together and then answer the questions, “what did you hear?” and “now what?”
What I am suggesting is that maybe you craft a sermon where Matthew’s parable might actually work. Create a real experience of the parable. That means asking people to close their bulletins. No peeking in the pew Bibles. Have them sit down. And just listen.
Start your sermon with Matthew 13:9, “Let anyone with ears listen.” The verb “to listen” is in present tense. To hear God’s Word is not a one-time occurrence but an ongoing characteristic of discipleship. Listening is essential to discipleship. And then ask – what did you hear? Where are you in this parable? Or better yet, when and how have you felt all of these responses to God’s Word? And why? And what do you experience in this listening today? Invite them to imagine that hearing God’s word has had different effects on them at different times. And in this sermon you are providing them with an imagination that what they hear on Sunday morning is not static but dynamic. Not fixed but ever meaningful. That their response to what they hear is just as important as what they hear. That what the Word of God does is just as important as what it says.
Unpack each element of the parable that Jesus later explains not with the goal to determine a set reaction to the Word, something like “you better be this” but to create space to reflect on when and how and why we might respond differently to what we hear God saying.
Play with the parable before you move immediately to Jesus’ explanation. In fact, don’t read out loud Jesus’ explanation at all. Just let it inform your sermon. Let the parable do what it wants to do. Then the Word of God will really be experienced. Ask in your sermon – when have you sensed that you heard God’s Word, only to have it make no sense at all? When have you realized that while you think you have heard God speaking, you question what you know, what you have learned, and if any doubt or discrepancy or discord arises because of what you have heard, either with others or within your own embedded theology, you question that which God’s word can do (Isaiah 55:11)?
When have you felt that as much as you try to listen to and abide in God’s Word there is just too much around you that makes more sense? There is too much circumspection about whether this really matters? And you intuit that any hold you had on some sort of foundational truth has been obstructed by that which offers fleeting yet more logical satisfaction?
In the end, preach the promise that in those grace-filled times when everything seems to come together, when what you have heard from and about God, what your life tells you, what your community affirms, then the fruit you bear is indeed as unique as your hearing (Matt 13:23). It’s not about how much fruit is produced. It’s about the way in which God’s Word has taken a hold in you. This is not a competition about who hears God’s Word better. It’s about what the hearing creates in you.
Last week, I spent three days in New Hampshire working with clergy on various topics in preaching. A mini-conference of sorts but more like a workshop. I am always amazed when preachers come to events like these. They are busy people. Preachers have people to marry and bury. People to visit and vocations to nurture. Worship to plan and meetings to run. And of course, sermons to write.
But somehow they know that if they do not set aside time, find time, protect time to hone the craft of preaching it will degrade into drudgery. This is not to suggest that other aspects of ministry are not susceptible to the grind of a gridlocked imagination. Yet, when the task of preaching turns into toil, there seems to be more at peril than mere “better luck next time” proclamation. Not that there’s necessarily more at stake in the pulpit than at a deathbed. Nor is preaching a categorically more intense moment of crisis than the confirmand who states out loud in class, “I think this is all a bunch of bullshit.”
It’s that preaching is so painfully public. More people will witness your waning wonder. More people will be given a chance to question your lack of enthusiasm or lethargy. More people are provided the possibility of boring deep into your soul in which you allow so very few and ask, “does she still believe it?”
Not that you can fake caring in a hospital room any more than you can in a sermon. But fewer people will notice. That’s the bottom line. And on the line seems to be not just how good a preacher you are, but how good a person you are. That’s the problem with preaching. It’s not only public. It’s personal. Out there for all to see is your biblical knowledge, your theological thoughts, your capability to deliver a message that might have some sort of meaning. But more so, displayed and exposed is who you are: your character, your faith, your experiences, your life, your heart, your truth. If you think you can “get out of the way” and let the Word of God speak its own truth, then you are practically and theologically in trouble. The quest for objectivity in the pulpit, or anywhere else in your ministry for that matter, is not possible. Moreover, the incarnation suggests that it does not belong there. The Word became flesh. God is counting on preachers to reincarnate that Word. If God invested God’s self in becoming human than that must mean that God takes being human seriously.
To be you takes time. To nurture you takes time. Imagination takes time. Creativity takes time.
One of the slides I used this week, posted on Facebook at some point, gives a possible outline for the creative process, no matter what the creative act:
This is awesome.
This is tricky.
This is shit.
I am shit.
This might be OK.
This is awesome.
I fear that a lot of sermons stop somewhere between steps two and four because the time necessary to get to five or six is truncated. At the same time, it’s hard to determine what might end up being a more dangerous sermon: the one preached at step number one or at step number four. What do I mean by dangerous? At step number one, the sermon will sound shallow and naïve. The preacher has been convinced that the first pass is brilliant, rationalized by an immediate light bulb moment that hasn’t had time to take shape or be examined for its brilliance. Biblical texts are far too complex to be assessed or accessed by first impressions. Most things are. A lot of sermons are first impression preaching. In public speaking, a first impression is made within 7-15 seconds, whether good or bad. While they are essential for the persuasive effect of a rhetorical event, they also can determine an encounter yet to reach its full potential.
At step number four, the sermon will be mired in “it’s all about me.” The preacher cannot help but reveal his sense of shortcomings or sheer decrepitude, perhaps so as to justify a bad sermon. Yes, preaching must be about you and from you but there’s a whole congregation who must hear that it’s about them, too. That’s the delicate relationship we negotiate each and every week, that relationship between preacher and text and congregation. Notice that I did not say that it is a balance we try to achieve every week. Balance is not only elusive, it is not necessarily possible. To strive for an exact one-third representation of ethos, logos, and pathos each Sunday is a contextual untruth. The exchange of the acting parties in a rhetorical event such as preaching depends on purpose, people, and place. And then, there’s this presence of God we call the Holy Spirit that will most certainly have an idea or two when it comes to the final product.
At the same time, the “I am shit” step reminds us of just how exposing creativity is. Yet, this is not to suggest that every time you write a sermon, you have to feel like you are shit somewhere in the week. I also fear that a lot of sermons arise from a general nod to the depravity of human existence, an obligatory bow to having been wounded by the text or from a need for solidarity in depravity. As if the only effect a text might want is to maneuver a transition from the despair of sin to the mercy of grace. Texts have a multitude of functions. Making you feel like shit may not always be a text’s desire. So the preacher needs to take seriously the “I am shit” moment. Perhaps attending to an interpretation of that moment as much as interpreting the biblical text. And that will take time. The “I am shit” moment represents the overwhelming complexity of the creative process. It may not be how the text makes you feel. It may very well be how you feel who you are. If that’s the case, time is critical.
Only you can protect you and protect your time. Only you will know that the intersection of you and the text will be a moment you cannot predict and therefore will need time to process. Time is not only necessary. It is incarnational. It is theological.
A few weeks ago, the 22nd annual Festival of Homiletics was held in Minneapolis, MN. Those in attendance might call it a preaching extravaganza, close to 2,000 preachers from all over the world, worshiping, visiting, networking, but then attentively listening to some pretty famous preachers preach and give lectures. Why do preachers come to these events? To be inspired? certainly. You get to hear some really, really great preachers. To be renewed? definitely. You are surrounded, even supported, by those who do what you do and perhaps more importantly, get what you do. To be filled? no doubt. When do preachers get to be preached to? At the end of the week, we are all exhausted but feel like we’ve gotten back the things we’ve lost over the year (which then makes us question why we wait a year to recoup our losses): camaraderie, because being a preacher is a lonely life; purpose, because getting into the pulpit week after week with few observable results inevitably calls forth the question, why?; and soul, because it takes a lot out of you to expose yourself, your thoughts on a text, your theology, letting it all hang out there for all to hear and see, every single week.
At the same time, events like these can be a mixed bag, right? You know who you like, who you don’t, and it’s not the same as the person sitting next to you. The admiration of one of your friends for a certain preacher/presentation is not necessarily what has made the week worthwhile for you. The experience is selective. Subjective. Depending on the person, place, and purpose for being there. Just what is a good sermon? What makes a good lecture or workshop? Events like the Festival of Homiletics remind you of just how biased preaching is. On many levels.
This alone is valuable for preachers to know, both going into a week like this and then what to expect coming out of it. Just because the festival organizers have decided this chosen collection of preachers is worth your time and money does not automatically require your allegiance to or assertion of the same analysis. And maybe that’s one of the reasons preachers go to preaching festivals. To have the sense that what you preach is not always with what others will agree or will like. That is definitely something that makes the week an appreciated experience.
But here is what I began to wonder about these kinds of events. That we come to these conferences and think we can or should be who we hear. We can’t. And we shouldn’t. And it’s even true for the preachers and presenters, lest you think we are immune from any insecurities or self-doubts. I have caught myself saying, more than once, “Why can’t I,” meaning me, Karoline Lewis, “be more like Anna Carter Florence? Barbara Brown Taylor? Maybe using three names would help? I’ll try that next time.”
And so, the second guessing begins. How good of a preacher am I? Really? The insecurities start to rise up – again – just when you thought you had managed to put them at bay, secure a manageable reprieve, for a little while anyway. The imposter syndrome works its way back into your consciousness. Did God get this right? That God thought I could be a preacher? Who am I, really? I could come up with as many excuses as Moses.
I am not sure from whom I heard this most meaningful statement. When a famous preacher was asked, “who is the best preacher in the country?” The response was “You. You are the only one who can preach into your context. You are the only one who knows your congregation, what they need, what they have experienced. You are the only one who knows what they need to hear, this moment, this Sunday.” Therefore, who is the best preacher out there? You. Do you believe it? If you don’t, why not? If you can, why?
Yes, there are all kinds of great sermons and great lectures to be heard in an event such as the Festival of Homiletics. As it should be. As it always will be. And this is a significant reason for being there. And it is so necessary. But, it doesn’t mean that the sermons you preach are any less great. At stake, theologically, and I am not sure we ever ask the question, “what is the theological purpose of a preaching festival?” is the incarnation. God invested God’s self in humanity. Not generally or generically, but specifically in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. That means God has equally invested God’s self in you. “Karoline from California” (insert your name and place of origin here). Yet, not only for the sake of the diversity of humanity, but also for the sake of embodying the extraordinary breadth and depth of the character of God. God somehow realized that God could not be known in being divine alone. God is revealed in who you are, and in when, what, how, and why you preach. You, yes you, are the preacher God needs you to be.
Need a way to renew your preaching? Try spending twenty-four hours with college students committed to denominational campus ministry at a state university. That will change what you think preaching does, how preaching matters, its purpose.
Admittedly, I was in awe of these dozen or so students. Growing up a PK (Preacher’s Kid) I wanted nothing to do with church, religion, God, let alone campus ministry my first two years of college. Even in my last two years, my involvement with the Lutheran presence on the campus was nominal at best. Yet, here they were, attending a retreat, after classes were over, to learn about how to invite, welcome, and engage peers in the activities of the Lutheran ministry on their campus and, and!!! to learn, from me, how to do Bible study. One student brought his brother, a freshman in high school, who was currently reading Luther’s The Bondage of the Will, for fun. Are you kidding me? You don’t want to know what I was reading my freshman year of high school for fun. I felt way out of my league.
And as my presentations and our conversations progressed, I realized that fact even more. How totally out of my element I felt. I am used to talking about the Bible to seminary students. To pastors. To adults in Adult Forums. But college students? Not so much. Yes, I taught college some years ago, for five years actually, but it’s been a while. I realized how quickly we devolve into our comfort zones. How conveniently we construe texts from our own perspectives and our immediate perceptions. How we make assumptions about meaning without recognizing the reality of what meaning might mean across the spectrum of our listeners.
Spending time with these dedicated and determined students, well, to be forthright, was a slap in the face. I needed this more than anything. When you realize that your questions are not universal or uniform. When your concerns are not shared by the consternations of others. When your curiosity about the Bible doesn’t hold a candle to the imagination of another generation, or even another individual to whom you are willing to listen.
What does this mean for preaching? First, that our preaching must attend to the entirety of God’s people. Are we listening to all voices? All those who are present and who wish to give voice or find meaning in their voice? Of course, not every sermon every Sunday will touch every generation. But, do we preach only to one group? Much like the media, the 18-35 year olds? Are our illustrations, stories, analogies, examples only with what we connect? And I get that. Preaching is hard enough, let alone being applicable to the masses. But actually, I don’t mean the masses here. I mean attentive listening. To all persons in your pews. This is not about some generalized example of teenage angst that you insert in your sermon. You actually have to listen. To be. To abide. Then, and only then, should you give voice to a generation about how God is active and matters in their lives, lest you presume or prescribe feelings.
Second, how much of our preaching practices actually engage in open and real conversation about a text, or are we content with our commentaries to provide the information we need? Where and how do we engage practices of dialogue that attend the extraordinary variety of God’s people?
Third, I found myself imagining the remarkable intersection of the Bible and hope. These students actually could imagine and articulate that their future will and must have God in it. For example, they articulate “bi-vocational” dreams, that they could have a career “in the world” and be a pastor at the same time. I am not sure that our sermons make such determined claims about future, about hope.
Finally, preaching needs to be up-building. By that, I do not mean some sort of bland equipping or empowering. Preaching is not a feel good endeavor or how you might reach your full potential. These students are too smart for such pablum. These students know what they want. What they want to be. Have goals for their future. These students want to feel that what they hear, and therefore, what you have to say, is not just advice but assurance. Not just acceptable solutions but aspirations. They want to hear that how they want to live their life is not alternate or against what they know life can be in God. That the life they wish to live can actually be grounded in theological and biblical constructs. They need to hear that what they hope for is connected to what they have hope in. Some things to remember when we think about the purpose of our preaching.
The Unplanned Perspective
This past week I went to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. It holds a lovely and diverse collection, worth frequent visits on its own, but this specific occasion was to view a temporary exhibit of works by Matisse and the museum’s 31st annual “Art in Bloom” featuring over 150 floral arrangements that interpret various pieces from the museum’s permanent collection. It was a serendipitous convergence of past and present art, interpretation then and now, and how meaning is contextually determined and defined.
Evidently, Renoir once said to Matisse: “When I have arranged a bouquet for the purpose of painting it, I always turn it to the side I did not plan.”
I began to imagine what this might mean for preaching. I think first of our approach to a biblical text for the purpose of preaching it. We engage our processes of exegesis to position the text in such a way that it might appear as an attractive array of information for preaching. Background, word studies, criticisms, like depth, color, and texture, create an integrated whole, a presentable piece, and certainly beautiful in attention, intentionality, and detail. We step back and admire how it all fits together. We feel satisfied with our efforts to collate and coordinate seemingly desperate data into a dazzling display of deliberation. We marvel at the mystery that we have managed to contain for a minute-determined performance.
I wonder, however, when the arrangement we have constructed, rather than a possibility for preaching, becomes the finality. When the information is perceived as sufficient for a sermon. When we are so taken with that which is behind the text, with what we have found out about the text, with what is worth knowing about the text, that we expect others will also have the same viewpoint. When we have gotten lost in the picture we have painted in our minds instead of being grasped by an image that might surprise us.
Renoir reminds us that the portrait we’ve constructed may not be that which we should paint.
What happens when you turn what you have learned to the side you did not plan? What will come into view when you look at the entirety of the bouquet through the perspective of one flower? What will you see when you shift the lens, ever so slightly, like the infinitesimal turn of a kaleidoscope?
Imagine what this means for the preacher. You are a painter. A sculptor. An artist. Don’t pretend that you aren’t. Preaching is an art. It is interpretation in time. A perspective for a certain purpose and place and people. Do we think about this? Remember this? Embody this identity? And why is this important? For the sake of what? Well, because at stake is our creativity. Our imagination. Our placed perspective. To embrace the space that seeks to speak into time. To articulate meaning that hopes to give meaning to the present and possibility for the future. That is art. That is preaching.
Matisse wrote, “Each picture, as I finish it, seems like the best thing I have ever done…and yet after a while I am not so sure. It is like taking a train to Marseille. One knows where one wants to go. Each painting completed is like a station – just so much nearer the goal. The time comes when the painter is apt to feel he has at last arrived. Then, if he is honest, he realizes one of two things – either that he has not arrived after all or that Marseille…is not where he wanted to go anyway, and he must push farther on.”
Renoir and Matisse remind us of that which is beyond ourselves. Beyond ourselves as preachers. Beyond ourselves as interpreters of biblical texts. Beyond ourselves when it comes to our theological constructs and creeds and confessions. The view of the artist might very well prevent, albeit with prudence, our own myopic manifestations of our mind’s eye.
To preach is to enter into the arena of the artist, the reality of the performer. One who seeks expression in time but also who understands its vulnerability. One who knows the joy of creation but also who is fully aware of the world’s critique. One who lives for meaning in the moment but also who senses its fleeting serendipity.
In the end, all of this is profoundly incarnational, right? And therefore, profoundly biblical. It is being who you are in the moment in which you have been called. It is communicating your truth that is then asked to be articulated into a particular moment. It is risking a permanent expression when you realize how impermanent truth really is. The life of an artist. The life of a preacher.