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.
Easter. Like Christmas, it’s the day that preachers wish they could simply utter from the pulpit, “what else is there to say?” Seriously. The story preaches itself, right? Right? Last year I contributed to a column that ran in the Minneapolis newspaper, the Star Tribune, about what an Easter sermon should or should not do. My main point – don’t preach the resurrection to death. What I meant by that was our inclinations to explain how critical this event is for Christianity, particularly for those who only come to church twice a year, Christmas and Easter. The twice-a-year folk don’t want to hear our generic platitudes about the importance of the resurrection. Nor do they want to hear its justification, rationalization, or argumentation.
I am convinced that they are not there for proof, for verification that this whole thing is factual, but because somewhere, sometime, maybe way back when, they had an Easter experience and they are attending your Easter service because they hope that maybe, possibly, could it be, that such an experience might happen again. And our usual sermons? An apology for the Christian faith rather than a sense that Easter might be felt again. A domesticizing of the anticipation of Easter rather than an imagining of its radical unexpectedness. A reduction to a creedal claim, “Christ has risen. He has risen indeed. Alleluia!” in place of the unsurety, the questioning, and the wonder, even the doubt and the flat out rejection. When the women told the disciples about the empty tomb, they did not respond with “Jesus Christ is risen today! Alleluia!” But, “Yeah? Well that’s a load of crap” (Luke 24:11).
Essentially, I am afraid that our Easter sermons have turned into rationalized justifications of this primary tenet of the Christian faith instead of responsive amazement that the resurrection happened. We have reduced the first person surprise of Mary, “I have seen the Lord!” to a definitive certainty, “Jesus Christ is risen today!” Not that there’s anything essentially wrong with our Easter claims. They are true. They need to be heard and voiced. They are our witness to the empty tomb. At the same time, they are distant. Reserved. Cautious. Even boring. Third person statements are not personal. They assume the agreement of others. They rely on the veracity of their claims outside of one’s own identifiable and determined commitments.
That’s all fine and good. And perhaps most people in the pews on Sunday need the communal, institutional, and ecclesial affirmation that they are there because something outside of themselves affirms that it is right.
At the same time, there is a point when you are going to need to come to terms with what difference the resurrection makes, for you. It’s all comfortably believable surrounded by favorite hymns, festive Easter outfits, fragrant lilies, and celebratory trumpets but what will it mean when Easter is over? It’s doubtful that the assurance with which we assert the resurrection will last long. What will you preach about that will make resurrection matter, here and now, and not just a far away or hoped-for promise after death? How will you preach resurrection so that when those listening are once again on their own, there is something on which they might draw that makes resurrection a daily part of life? Will they be able to recapture, remember, or reclaim the resurrection promises heard Easter Sunday when they are back at work on Monday? Or, will the resurrection possibilities seem like a distant day that daily matters little?
How might this play out in our Easter preaching? Preach a detail because then when that detail surfaces again, in real life, then maybe resurrection will be remembered. For example, for this year, the year of Matthew, preach that Easter is an earthquake (Mt 28:2). Second, preach the truth. That this is unbelievably hard stuff and then maybe it will seem worthy of attention more than one day a year. And third, preach that resurrection has everything to do with now and is not just something to count on when your now is over. Resurrection is a change in perspective. Life cannot be the same if the testimony of the women at the tomb is true. Nothing can be the same. That which the world sees is not what you will see. That which the world holds to be true and right is not what you will know as true and right. That which the world knows as fair and just will not be what you believe to be fair and just. Everything should change. Resurrection is a life-style not just a life-saver.
“The Sermon Title”
This past weekend I attended the Upper Midwest Regional Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and American Schools of Oriental Research. These conferences, particularly at the regional level, are rarely, if ever, interested in preaching, in interpretation for a specific time, place, people, and purpose, or any kind of intersection between biblical studies and homiletical theory. But I have discovered that if you are attentive, if you listen carefully, you may very well hear something that matters for preaching. Of course, there is a lot you will hear that matters for biblical interpretation which is, of course, essential for sound biblical preaching. But, the actual art of preaching? Any glimpse into the craft of preaching through a different lens? Any sense of how I might preach differently given what I have heard in the presentations? Those opportunities are typically few and far between.
Yet in a panel discussion about publishing online, I found myself intrigued by titles. This made me think more specifically about sermon titles. To be honest, I have a love/hate relationship with titles. As a biblical scholar, I am suspicious of them and their attempts to have me view or perceive a text in certain ways. You know what I mean. “The Prodigal Son” but never “The Really Ticked-Off Older Brother.” Or “The Good Samaritan” but never “The Beaten-Up Guy in the Ditch.” Titles determine how we read. What we will hear. What we will see. How we will interpret the story. I tend not to like being controlled when it comes to my reading and interpretation of texts. Perhaps you are the same way. And I especially do not want pre-determined meanings when it comes to interpreting a text for preaching. The radical contextualization of preaching resists any overtures to pre-existent conclusions. As a result, I am leery of sermon titles, lest they preordain both what my sermon might end up being and doing or what might actually happen in a sermon.
So, I asked one of the panelists about titles. How important are they? What do titles mean in an online setting? Are they different, the same? What do they do? As it turns out, titles are critical for online publishing. I had that suspicion. A few years ago in 2011, I wrote an article for The Christian Century on Passion Sunday. It was Matthew’s version that year, Year A, and I specifically invited preachers to consider focusing on Palm Sunday more than Passion Sunday. An accompanying blog went with the article which was titled, and I don’t remember giving it this title, “Against Passion Sunday.” What? I didn’t think I was arguing against Passion Sunday. I was simply suggesting that a return to or a focus on Palm Sunday might be a worthwhile theological, liturgical, and homiletical act. I was only suggesting that preachers consider what might be lost theologically when Passion Sunday commandeers the focus and function of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The feedback was, well, reactive. Various and sundry questions about my Christology, soteriology, and liturgical sensitivities were raised. Yet, that blog became one of the top ten blogs for The Christian Century that year. Why? I am not sure it was my carefully crafted argument, my insightful biblical interpretation, or my moderate plea to reconsider Palm Sunday. It was that title. “Against Passion Sunday.” Thank you, The Christian Century. It was brilliant. On so many levels. Intriguing? Yes. Sexy? Yes. Catchy? Yes. As it turns out, everything a title should be for writing and publishing online. When it comes to the internet and getting hits, what shows up on a Google search, maximizing your exposure, it’s all about SEO – search engine optimization.
Imagine applying this critical internet tool to your own preaching. What if your sermon title was indeed attentive to SEO? This could matter for your preaching in three very important ways. First, a title that reflects SEO would focus your sermon. Increasingly, I’ve had my preaching students summarize the sermon, its focus or main point, in the length of a tweet. If you can’t capture your sermon in 140 characters then you are trying to do too much in the sermon. This is not just a pedagogical reaction to the diminishing attention spans of listeners but has everything to do with the nature of oral communication. A careful reading, or hearing, of biblical texts will discern a main point. Consider the Bible as a model for what it means to have some sort of graspable thesis for your proclamation. Second, a little intrigue about your sermon on the front end never hurts. A carefully crafted title, perhaps published ahead of time by email, newsletter, tweet, or website, could very well interest, even fascinate, your parishioners. Maybe they will actually show up and with some modicum of anticipation. Third, a SEO kind of title might actually be a smart hermeneutical move when it comes to what you want your sermon to do. Imagine a title a little off the mark. A title that introduces one thing, perhaps the assumed, but you want your sermon to disrupt the expected, the comfortable, the complacent. A title could then disarm, disorient, disturb, so as to make the sermon an unpredicted experience. Perhaps, then, something might actually happen to your listeners, which the biblical texts assume, which our sermons should do, and which anticipates every hope and promise that the Spirit might actually show up.
There is certainly no scarcity of reflections on preaching out there for homileticians to access so as to hone their craft or find inspiration in its artistry. At the same time, timely, experiential, and meaningful musings on the call to proclamation may be that which could invite inspiration and imagination in the weekly trust of preaching a text into and for the sake of a particular congregation. This is the purpose of this blog. My intention is to engage the practice of preaching as it exists, functions, and interacts with real life as it is experienced. I want to ask what difference does preaching make given current and contemporary contexts. These contexts include cultural, national, social, biblical, liturgical, congregational, political, religious, sexual, personal, and global, a list that by no means is exhaustive. It is to imagine how preaching changes hermeneutically, homiletically, biblically, because it is a word for a particular time, place, people, and purpose. How does that amend our preaching? How does that modify what we think preaching should or can be? How does that actually alter how we preach?
In other words, the primary purpose of this blog is to explore the intersections of life and the preaching task. When life shows up and it changes how you think about preaching, even if it means only temporarily. Let me be clear. The ways in which life and biblical texts connect are the heart of every preacher’s week. This is the fundamental nature of preaching, how the preacher preaches a determined text into, in the midst of, and for the sake of a particular congregation. At the same time, these issues are very difficult for a professor of biblical preaching to address. As much as we would like to teach our students everything, in the end we cannot teach the implication of location or the meaning of a text in a radically particular moment. To paraphrase a conversation between a well-known, even infamous preacher and an ardent disciple, “Who is the best preacher in the country?” to which the famous homiletician answered, “you.” There it is.
I cannot begin to address the specificity that is necessary for your preaching context. Everything I write, podcast, teach has to be applied and deeply. There is only so far I can go when it comes to what preaching will mean for the pastor and the pew. At the same time, it is worthwhile to imagine how the actual practice of preaching changes beyond your most immediate reality. That what you are about every Sunday is empowering those who listen to be preachers, to be witnesses for God’s love for the world. You are not only called to engage the needs of your congregation. You are also called to be the best preacher you can be. What does that mean? It has nothing to do with being the best preacher in the world. It has everything to do with embodying in your congregation a sense that preaching matters beyond this pulpit and these pews. That preaching matters for the world.
So here are my first thoughts. A few weeks ago I was in Arizona presenting on what it means to be a disciple for those in the “third chapter of life.” They were with me in the morning, exploring how characters in the Gospel of John might invite imagination for discipleship post-retirement. The afternoons were somewhat leisurely. Free to do what you want but also activities and workshops offered for those interested. One of the workshops was on sex-trafficking, particularly its prominence in Phoenix. I had not intended to go to this workshop, not because I didn’t care, didn’t want to, but had in mind afternoons to work, catch up, do my own thing. The workshop was offered Monday and Tuesday. Monday, I met them. The deaconess who is commissioned by the church to work in this ministry and the woman who was a victim and now an advocate. I will call this victim Mary, who experienced all of which and more that the representative described. It was a casual meeting, getting together after their first presentation. But she said about me, casually, but then urgently, “She (me) has a spirit. She has something. You need to be there tomorrow.” I agreed, to be there, that is.
I arrived just before it started. Evidently she had waited for me to get there before she left. Her partner does the first part of the presentation. My sense was that she cannot take that first part, the stark statistics and percentages of her reality. When I got there, she hugged me and left immediately. Seventy-five minutes later she came back and told her story. In the middle of the story, she preached. She preached to all of those present. But then, she preached to me. Calling my name. Claiming that God had brought us together. That God made today happen. That I was filled with the Spirit and that I would do great things because the Spirit is in me. That God has great plans for me. It’s rare that a preacher gets preached to. It’s not often that I cry in a sermon. But I did that day. Uncontrollably. Why? Because I actually felt the presence of God. The active existence of God in me. Literally. I am not kidding. After, we hugged. Maybe five minutes? Longer? I am not sure. All I know is that I couldn’t let go.
How does this matter for preaching? Great question. It means preaching happens outside of the constructs we erect. What does that indicate? It means that you might very well experience a sermon when you least expect it. And then, you might ask yourself, why was that a sermon? What did it do? And do it the next time you preach. Mary reminded me that preaching can happen anytime and anyplace. I had forgotten that. Be ready.