Posts Tagged ‘preaching’
The Preaching Life by Barbara Brown Taylor, Cowley Publications, 1993, 180 pp.
Barbara Brown Taylor’s writings and reflections are always rich and beautiful. The Preaching Life is no exception. The book talks about her own life and relationship with preaching, which is insightful for anyone engaged in preaching or listening to sermons.
The book is divide into two sections, “A Life of Faith” and “The Preaching of the Word.” The first is her reflection on her own call into ministry, the role of the church, and the task of preparing sermons. The chapters follow a simple trajectory: A Church in Ruins, Call, Vocation, Imagination, Bible, Worship, and Preaching. The second section includes 13 sermons, mostly on the Gospels. I read the book more for the reflection than the sermons, so I will focus on that in my comments here. Taylor’s sermons are always thought-provoking, as she has a way of drawing us into the intersections between the life-world of the Bible and our own.
I especially appreciated her perspective on preparing sermons that attempt to join the timely pastoral concerns of the congregation and the timeless stories of scripture. Sermons reside in the space between pastor, congregation and God, and they always emerge from the preacher’s reflections on the relationships between all three.
Preaching becomes something the whole community participates in, not only through their response to a particular sermon but also through identifying with the preacher. As they listen week after week, they are invited to see the world the way the preacher does—as the realm of God’s activity—and to make connections between their Christian faith and their lives the same way they hear them made from the pulpit. (33)
Later, she likens the preparation of a sermon to being Cyrano de Bergerac, “passing messages between two would-be lovers who don’t know how.”
What is called for, instead, is a sermon that honors all of its participants, in which preachers speak in their own voices out of their own experience, addressing God on the congregation’s behalf and—with great care and humility–the congregation on God’s behalf… Down in the bushes with a congregation who have elected me to speak for them, I try to put their longing into words, addressing the holy vision that appears on the moonlit balcony above our heads. Then the vision replies, and it is my job to repeat what I have heard, bringing the message back to the bushes for a response. (83)
From the beginning, she speaks about call and vocation as they apply not simply to preachers and clergy, but to all of the baptized—we are all called to live our lives for God through our work and our service. Her approach to preaching echoes that theology throughout.
And finally, just an eloquent word on God and the life of faith:
Then I remember that God’s power is not a controlling but a redeeming power—the power to raise the dead, including those who are destroying themselves—and the red blood of belief begins to return to my veins. I have faith. I lose faith. I find faith again, or faith finds me, but throughout it all I am grasped by the possibility that it is all true: I am in good hands; love girds the universe; God will have the last word.
Provoking the Gospel: Methods to Embody Biblical Storytelling through Drama by Richard W. Swanson, Pilgrim Press, 2004, 136 pp.
I purchased this book at the UCC General Synod this summer, and I had no idea how timely and helpful it would be. During the months of August and September, I preached a sermon series entitled “Living in Tents,” focused on the Hebrew Bible stories from Genesis and Exodus, loosely staying with the cycle of readings in the Revised Common Lectionary. Rather than attempt to read a large amount of text from the Bible, I used the children’s sermon time to engage in biblical storytelling about the narratives. I called it a “story for all ages,” and took 10-15 minutes to give a good, thorough telling of the biblical story, beginning with Joseph and moving on through the death of Moses this Sunday.
I took some storytelling workshops way back in college, but I don’t really know much about the art of storytelling. Swanson’s book was a great way to engage me, as a beginner, in thinking about how to tell the scripture story in a new way, even though I did not follow his precise method (or even use the New Testament texts he highlights).
Swanson makes a case for the embodiment of the Gospel stories:
Biblical interpretation must concern itself first of all with bodies, not ideas. The characters in these stories are not symbolic ciphers; they are bodies, they are people, and their interactions take place in the physical and ethical space of the real world… In biblical stories people look each other in the eye and act. These acts sometimes heal and sometimes betray, sometimes protect and sometimes abuse. (viii)
He continues: “We need to poke these old stories, to poke them and provoke them a little. And nothing does that textual poking and provoking like public, physical performance.” (viii) This was definitely my experience in preparing to tell the story each week. Reading over the familiar stories with the intent to tell them drew my attention to the physical aspects in a new way. I had to imagine Pharoah’s stance and voice, put myself in the midst of each plague, respond to the burning bush. Learning to tell the story (instead of read it) put both me and the congregation in a different relationship to the characters in it.
Provoking the Gospel is both a “why-to” and a “how-to” book—both making the case for biblical storytelling, and teaching the reader how to get started. Swanson’s method uses a group process, with an ensemble experimenting and engaging the story together. He incorporates theater exercises, body movement, experimentation and script-writing into his process. He encourages making mistakes, taking risks and getting it wrong along the path to provoking the surprising presence of God in these familiar Gospel stories. Each chapter contains a well-informed theoretical exploration for the “why-to,” followed by a list of exercises and steps for the “how-to.” Although I did not follow these instructions, I still found the exercises helpful in beginning the process as a solo storyteller.
Both Swanson and the process of doing storytelling in my congregation have convinced me that we should be making this a part of our worship and teaching on a regular basis. If we want an embodied, vital life of faith, we need to share with people an embodied, vital version of the Gospel. Storytelling is what God’s people have always done to share the good news. It’s what Jesus did to share his message. We need to follow their example and tell the stories over and over again in new ways.
The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem, by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, HarperCollins, 2006, 238 pp.
While I should have read this book earlier in Lent, to have it undergird my preparations for Holy Week services, it became my Holy Week practice to read a chapter every day, each corresponding to that day of Holy Week. The authors undertake a thorough examination of Jesus’ activities from Palm Sunday through Easter, focusing on the Gospel of Mark but often holding up other accounts to explore the differences. The book aims to provide serious and scholarly reflection on the stories of Holy Week so that those of us who celebrate them in Christian worship might move beyond centuries-old layers of theological interpretation and examine Jesus’ Passion with an eye toward what Jesus was passionate about.
The first passion of Jesus was the kingdom of God, namely, to incarnate the justice of God by demanding a fair share of a world belonging to and ruled by the covenantal God of Israel… We focus on “what Jesus was passionate about” as a way of understanding why his life ended in the passion of Good Friday. (from the Preface)
I have read enough Borg and Crossan before to recognize similar themes between this book and their other works. Jesus’ passion is about non-violent resistance to the Roman empire, about peasants and villagers who are unjustly treated by the empire and its collaborators, about an alternative vision of the world that is not based on violence and domination, but love, radical hospitality and economic justice. Thanks to Borg and Crossan, along with Walter Brueggemann, Walter Wink and Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, that is how I have come to understand Jesus as well.
This book was incredibly helpful in connecting that understanding of Jesus’ life and mission with the events of Holy Week, which are surrounded by so much baggage of atonement theology, pietism and oversimplification—not to mention the baggage that comes from things like The Passion of the Christ or even Jesus Christ Superstar. As a preacher who tells and retells and interprets this story every year, I felt grounded and refreshed by reading this book. It helped me immerse myself more fully in Holy Week, (more on that here) while keeping me from lapsing into sentimentalism. While I did not ever cite the book directly, it certainly inspired and directed my preaching for the week. I highly recommend it for preachers, teachers and small groups who want to go deeper with the story of Jesus’ last week.
Highlighted Passage: Isaiah 49:8-16
Speaking in God’s voice, Isaiah writes: “I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands. Your walls are continually before me.” It’s such a familiar, ordinary kind of image. “I won’t forget—see? I wrote it down right here on my hand.” What do you write on your hands? Telephone numbers? Directions? Grocery Lists? Things to bring to a meeting, an event? Students write crib notes for their tests. At least one politician has gotten in trouble for writing debate notes on the palm of a hand. We can deduce that this practice is as old as the Bible itself, at least the era of Isaiah.
Every time you look down at your hands, the reminder is there. What is the reminder written on the palms of God’s hands? You are, Isaiah says. You are written on the palm of God’s hand. Your name, concerns about your well-being, all the needs of the community of God are inscribed in the palm of his hands.
When I first heard this image, I found it incredibly moving. I mean, to think, we, you and me, matter so much to God that we are written in the palm of God’s hand. Surely we will not be forgotten, if we are written in such a handy place?
But the more I thought about it, the more I was troubled by having my name written on God’s hand. I don’t know about you, but the only time I bother writing something on my hand is when I am actually quite inclined to forget it. I write it there because I just know, if I don’t, I’m going to forget. And I actually gave up writing things on the palm of my hand a long time ago, because I discovered that I would almost always sweat, smear or wash them off by the time I needed to remember them. I’d just end up with some illegible smudges in the wrinkles of my skin—not a helpful reminder at all.
This troubled me. I mean, on first glance, I loved the idea of our being so close to God’s mind, so important to God’s memory that God would write our names, yours and mine, right there in the palm of the hand. But then I thought—that means God might forget us if not for the reminder—and what if it gets all sweaty and smudgy? (We’re not talking literally here, of course—either about the palms or the smudge, but I just did not like where the metaphor led me.)
And then, I realized I’d just over-thought myself out of a sermon, and I wondered what I was going to stand up here at say to you. Because really, what I want to say to you today is what Isaiah was trying to say with this image about the palms of the hands—God loves you so much that you, little old you, little old me, that we are always on God’s mind, inscribed right in the palm of his hands. That you and I are on God’s mind, in God’s thoughts, in God’s heart, and in God’s hands.
I went back to the scripture reading to try again. I realized I had been so focused on sitting in the palm of God’s hand that I had completely overlooked a much better metaphor.
“Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you.”
I was once a woman with a nursing child, and I still miss it. I loved the way my body responded to his needs. The way the milk welled up inside me at the sound of his cry—or the cry of any lonesome baby. The sensation of being full to overflowing, then emptying into a hungry baby belly. The joy of holding him close, playing with his feet and hands while he ate. The pride I felt in watching his legs and arms grow fatter on the nutrition my body produced. The power of knowing that I could provide everything my baby needed, no matter where we went. The amazement at what my body knew to do, its ability to provide. The mystical connection to the God that created me, and to all the women who had nursed children before me.
What I loved more than anything, what I miss most, is the intimacy we shared. This tiny child depended on me for his nutrition. I responded by offering him my body. Especially in those early months, we could not bear to be apart from one another—he for hunger, me for the need to empty myself for him. I could not go for more than a couple of hours without experiencing his absence from my body. I ached for him. My body yearned to give itself over to him. Forgetting him, forgetting my role as his mother, was impossible. I carried my love and care for him not just in my mind, but in my body. My body would not let me forget, even for a moment.
Our God is a nursing mother. She feels a connection to us in her very body, filled to overflowing with love, ready to pour into our hungry selves. We are impossible for God to forget, for that love for us is carried in God’s very body. God delights in our growth and strength, marvels at our creation, provides for us everything we need. God will not, cannot neglect us. Our connection to God is so intimate that it is physical.
When we talk about being held in the arms of God, it’s not just hands outstretched, like a baby bird you are observing with gentleness. It’s also cradled like a baby, cradled and rocked, soothed and snuggled. When we say, “God knows, and God cares,” we aren’t just talking about the mind of God—we are talking about the very body of God, which aches with our absence and yearns to be reunited with us. When we cry out like a newborn child, knowing that we are hungry or lonely or dirty or afraid, even if we cannot get up and make our way to God, if all we can do is open our mouths and wail in despair, God comes to us, picks us up, rocks us gently and places us next to her heart.
God holds us in the palm of his hand, at her nursing breast. We dwell inside God’s beating heart.
Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Highlighted Passage: 1 Corinthians 3:10-23
I have always been fascinated by the construction of cathedrals. In the Middle Ages, when the cardinals of Europe were competing with one another to build the most magnificent edifice, craftsmen and laborers used the simplest of tools to build these spectacular buildings. Construction provided employment for hundreds, if not thousands, of workers, most of which would never live to see the fulfillment of their labors. Cathedrals took centuries to build, and the life expectancy of most workers was less than 50 years. The laborers and masons and glasscutters spent their whole lives, from an apprenticeship in their preteens until their old age, working on the project, in the hopes that their great-great grandchildren might someday worship there.
While we may build our church buildings today in a mere year or two, the process of building Christ’s church is still something that happens across centuries and generations. As Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians, the foundation has been laid in Jesus Christ. Paul, himself only one “degree” removed from Jesus and the disciples, builds upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. Each subsequent generation is tasked with continuing to build the church, to spread the good news. Like the cathedral builders of old, we inherit a project that has already been started, and we will not live to see its completion. However, if we do not continue the work that was started by those who came before us, our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will not know a place to discover the grace of Jesus Christ.
My church is in the midst of the commitment phase of a capital campaign, with a planned giving period of three years. (I just have to share my glee—last Sunday was our Celebration of Commitment, and we surpassed our $350,000 goal by more than $50,000!) The theme of our campaign is “Foundations: Our Faith, Our Time, Our Future,” and we have been working with the image Paul presents in this passage. Our church was founded in 1860. The building we currently inhabit was built in 1915, and expanded in 1951. We have only one member left who was baptized in the old building prior to 1915. There are a few who were present in the 1951 expansion, but they were young people, not leaders of the church at the time. We are living in a building built by others who came before us. As we plan and imagine renovations for the future, we realize that we are not building for ourselves and our programs—we are building something for the next generation to inherit, a place for our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to gather to worship and come to know Jesus Christ. We don’t know what their worship will look like, or what ministries they will launch, or how the Gospel will be made known in their generation—but we want to offer them something, an inheritance, a building where they might find shelter and connection to the holy.
In my church, we are dealing with a literal building right now—but, as it was for Paul, the building is a metaphor for what we really about, which is building the community of Christ, the Kingdom of God. How can we build God’s community, God’s message, our faithfulness so that those who come after us will continue to know the Gospel?
The question Paul’s image provokes is: how’s the building project going? Are you using the best materials available, with prayer and study? Are you dedicated to the work, or are you just throwing it together? Will your efforts to build the community of Christ stand up to the test of fire, or will it crumble under pressure? Who is being glorified by your efforts? Are you building to the glory of God and the spread of the gospel to future generations, or are you building memorials and statues to human heroes today?
One of my favorite quotations from Reinhold Niebuhr reminds me to always take the long view of all our efforts at building, whether we are constructing a church, community or ministry:
Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.
Or, as Paul puts it, “all things are yours…the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”
Highlighted Passage: Matthew 4:12-23
Put down your nets—you’re after the wrong fish.
When Jesus approached those would-be disciples on the shores of the Galilee, they were doing what they had done every day, probably since they were young boys—climb into boats, row out into the Sea of Galilee, cast out nets to catch fish, haul in the nets, sort the catch, cast the nets out again, haul in again, sort again. All day long. At the end of the day, they rowed back to shore, and mended the nets for the next day’s work. Cast, haul, sort, row, mend. One day after another, one net after another.
Until the day Jesus arrives. “Repent,” was his message. Turn around. You’re going the wrong direction with your life. “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” The glory of heaven is right here all around you, next to you, and you are busy with nets. Casting, hauling, sorting, mending—you’re so focused on the nets that you’re missing the presence of heaven in your midst. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Put down the nets—you’re after the wrong fish. Come with me, and I’ll show you the kingdom of heaven. Come with me, and I’ll teach you what you really should be fishing for. Then you can show others.
I think we have a lot in common with these fisherfolk—Peter, Andrew, James, John. They had ordinary, familiar names. We all know our fair share of Peters, Johns, Jameses and Andrews. They work ordinary working people, just like us. Every day, they went out to catch fish. Some of the fish went home to feed their families, the rest to the market, sold to pay taxes and rent and buy clothing and medicine and anything else their families needed. The next day, the same thing. Work – eat – sleep –work – eat – sleep – work – eat – sleep.
How many of us live that kind of a life? We work hard every day, at the computer, on the assembly line, answering the phone, solving problems, building with our hands, tending to needs, managing papers. That work gives us the money we need to provide for our family—and so we spend it, to feed our families, pay taxes, pay the mortgage, buy clothing, medicine and anything else our family needs. Unlike those fisherfolk, most of us are blessed enough to have some left to buy televisions and computers, music and movies, trips to the mall and evenings out. But our lives are on the same cycle. Work – consume – sleep – work – consume – sleep – work – consume – sleep. “Repent,” says Jesus. “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” And if you don’t put down those nets, stop the cycle, get beyond working/eating/sleeping/consuming, you’re going to miss it.
“Repent, and follow me.” Repent has a negative connotation of absolute depravity, similar to idea in 12-step groups about “hitting rock bottom” so that you can turn your life around. In reality, though, repentance does not require a rock-bottom moment, a 180-degree change-of-life. To repent is simply to feel regret at the direction of your life. It’s about breaking the cycle, correcting the course, deciding to make a change—whether it’s 180-degrees or 18. It’s about recognizing when you’ve been following the wrong pursuit, that your life is not headed in the right direction, that you are so busy casting, hauling, mending, sorting—so busy working, eating, consuming—that you have fallen into a life without wonder and purpose and beauty, lost the sense that the kingdom of heaven is near, and that we might glimpse it. Repent and follow me—put down the nets, you’re after the wrong fish.
Don’t we all, like those ordinary disciples, want more than working and consuming? That’s what Jesus offers. Follow me, and you’ll discover that heaven isn’t as far away as you think. It’s right here at hand. (For a great, fun explanation of how heaven is right at hand, check out the song “The Gospel Story” from Butterflyfish.) And if you stop following the cycle and start following me, you’ll have glimpse heaven around you all the time. You’ll start to see that God has more in mind for you than work and nets. You’ll stop fretting about the next day’s catch, the next day’s food, the next day’s mending. You’ll find the peace that passes all understanding, the confidence of God’s love and care for you, the light of hope in all things.
You and me together, says Jesus, we can show all those people trapped in their own nets of working, eating, consuming, together we can show them that there’s more for them, for all of us. There are people everywhere living in darkness, and we can show them the light—the light of heaven, all around them, beckoning them to live in love, to build peace and justice, to practice kindness and generosity. We can capture their hearts and together bring healing and good news to them all. Put down your nets, and follow me.
I am just downright irritable this morning. And I hate being this way.
Normally, I am a very chipper person. So much so that I am often accused of being annoying, pollyanna-ish and overly optimistic. But occasionally–like today–I am just downright grumpy.
And I don’t like it. Or much of anything else at the moment.
What frustrates me most at times like this is that I know exactly why I’m so irritated, yet I still find myself in the same position.
I am in such an ornery mood because I am stressed out about the sermon for tomorrow (notice that no sermon sapling ever got posted this week). I am nervous about the sermon tomorrow because I haven’t spent enough time this week preparing for it. I haven’t spent enough time preparing for the sermon because I have been overwhelmed with other pressing commitments at the church. Because I have been overwhelmed, I have not had any time to decompress or relax or take time for myself this week, except in desperation when I watch some bad TV or go to bed early. Because I have not had (or made) the time to relax, I can’t clear my head well enough to concentrate on the sermon. So I get more and more nervous about the sermon, more and more frustrated at all the distractions, more and more irritated, and more and more anxious. It’s a cycle of escalation.
This is a bad situation. I don’t let myself get in this position very often, but sometimes it just sneaks up on me.
The only cure, I have found, is to take the time to relax. The sermon won’t come to me in such a mood. No one wants to hear a sermon written by an irritable preacher—there is much griping and little good news in one of those. I have lots of ideas of what to say this week, and they will come together if I can just claim the space to let the Spirit in.
I have learned, after nearly 10 years of preaching, that the best thing that an irritable preacher can do is absolutely nothing related to the sermon. Instead, she should do something that helps her reclaim a sense of space and a sense of God’s presence. For me, it usually works to undertake something I wanted to do–for myself or even for church–that I didn’t have time to do during the week. Somehow that makes me feel like I have reclaimed the speed of my life and put things back into balance. This morning, I cleaned the kitchen and posted this blog entry. It may not be a sermon sapling, but I feel better for having written something at all this week.
By the time I hit the “publish” button, my mood will have already improved greatly. Especially since it means sharing that funny picture of a grumpy baby. I trust God’s forgiving grace will be with me, and with any other preachers who stumble across this entry when they are too irritated to write their own sermons.
Highlighted passage: Romans 15:4-13
This week is all about hope, a word that has endured a lot of attention in recent years. When the Obama campaign used “Hope” as its campaign theme in 2008, those who supported the campaign rallied around hope as our solution and salvation—even when the campaign never clearly defined what we were hoping for. Of course, as is natural in a political struggle, opponents of the Obama campaign attacked not only the candidate, but the campaign theme. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and others began to mock the concept of hope as a way of mocking the Obama campaign. Hope, they said, was “an excuse for not trying,” a flimsy, lazy concept that replaces the real work of improving the world.
Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, as Christians, the concept of hope remains critical to our faith. We are a people of hope. Especially in this Advent season, we talk about hope in God’s coming into our midst with love and new life and salvation in the form of a tiny baby in Bethlehem.
The kind of hope we Christians practice does not resemble the hope of politics, whether from the right or the left. It is not some vague sentiment that things will get better, that everyone will be happier, that life will be easier. The passage from Romans tells us what we are hoping for: “grant you to live in harmony with one another … that together you may with one voice glorify God.” We are hoping for unity among human beings, so that all creation might praise God with one voice.
Neither is hope an excuse for inaction or laziness, believing that things will get better without your help or involvement. It is not a wish that we toss half-heartedly into a fountain with little faith in its eventual fruition. Again from Romans: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” Hope is instructive, it shapes us and encourages us to undertake the challenging work of living in unity for the praise of God.
One of my favorite articulations of Christian hope is from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said that “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” He delivered those words on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol to a foot-weary crowd at the end of a five-day march to Montgomery. They had endured great suffering and made great sacrifices for the cause of civil rights. His speech was entitled, “Our God is Marching On!” King was inspiring hope in answer to the rhetorical question, “how long?” How long must we wait for justice? Not long, he said, because God is in charge, and God will not let hate rule forever. That’s what Christian hope is.
Christian hope is the quiet, determined confidence that God’s promises will prevail, that God is in charge of the universe and God’s love will not end in failure. Christian hope is what inspires and sustains real action to help build God’s kingdom here on earth. Like praying for peace, praying with hope moves the one praying into deeper commitment to a life of love.
Ours is not an unfounded hope. It rests on a firm foundation—the legacy of God’s saving action and fulfilled promises throughout history. We hope in God for the future because we have known God’s faithfulness in the past. In Romans, Paul points to “the promises to the patriarchs.” God promised Noah that the earth would never again be destroyed, and God delivered on that promise. God promised Abraham offspring and land, and God delivered on that promise. God promised the Hebrew people deliverance from Egypt, and God delivered on that promise. God promised sustenance in the wilderness, and God delivered on that promise. God promised that Jesus would be raised from the dead, and God delivered on that promise.
We can look to the past and see God’s faithfulness because God’s promises come true over and over again. Our hope is founded in a God who acts to save us time and time again, and we therefore believe God will act to save us again now and in the future. That’s what hope is–determined confidence that the same God that answered the prayers of our ancestors will answer our prayers as well. God promised that we will have new life, and God will deliver. God promised that the end of this world will be with God, and God will deliver. God promised that peace and justice will reign, and God will deliver.
Daniel Burnham, the late 19th century architect responsible for the design of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair that inspired the City Beautiful movement, said the following:
Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big.
Advent reminds us of God’s biggest promises: that peace and justice will prevail, that human beings will live in unity, that new and eternal life are possible, that we will be saved from sin and destruction. It is a season for robust hope, and for letting that hope inspire big plans that provoke and inspire action now and in the future, for the future. After all, our hope rests in a great God, who fulfills promises and leads us in the path of unity, peace and justice. We worship an all-powerful, all-loving God. We need to make plans and dream dreams and set hopes that are worthy of God’s greatness. Any less than abundant hope is not worthy of the greatness of our God.
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
This is a new (what I hope will be weekly) feature on the blog–an initial reaction and some opening thoughts on this week’s lectionary passages, in preparation for preaching on Sunday. For more info, see About My Blog.
Opening Thoughts on Advent
We treat Lent as the great season of abstinence, self-examination and spiritual discipline in preparation to cleanse ourselves for Easter, asking God’s grace and forgiveness for our sins. Advent, on the other hand, has become a season for carols and decorations and pageants, as though we are preparing for a party rather than the disruptive presence of God. I think Advent should be more like Lent. I don’t mean dour and deprived, but I do mean a time of heightened intentionality and spiritual attunement. In Lent, we examine our souls and our behaviors and ask God to make us righteous again. In Advent, I think we are challenged to examine our cynicism and closed-mindedness and ask God to make us visionary again. The scriptures of the lectionary during the Advent season present some of the most compelling visions of peace, hope, love and joy in the whole Bible. Advent urges us to dream bigger, open ourselves to more possibilities, and to raise our expectations for what we can do and what God can do. My sermon series this year will focus on digging deeper into those traditional Advent themes of peace, hope, joy and love, and challenging us to pray for them in a more meaningful and considered fashion, with faith that God will answer our cries.
Advent I: Praying for Peace
People use the phrase “peace on earth” with abandon this time of year. It comes directly from Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ birth, where the angels announce that he comes to bring “peace on earth, good will to all.” From the beginning, then, Christmas has been tied to the promise of peace on earth.
But I think our thoughts and even our prayers on the subject are puny at best. In fact, they seem to be more like letters to Santa than petitions to God.
“Dear Santa-God, I’ve been very good this year. Please bring me a new bike, a new car, an X-box 360, those cool jeans I saw at Abercrombie, and an i-tunes gift card. That is all. Oh yeah, and peace on earth.”
It’s as though we use our prayers for peace on earth at Christmas to assuage our guilty conscience. The frenzy of consumerism and desire for worldly things seizes us particularly tight in the days between Black Friday and New Years Day sales. We recognize the selfishness and self-centeredness of all this spending on things that we may want but probably don’t need, and we feel guilty about it. We pray for peace on earth and try to give a bit extra to those in need this season, so we can feel better about all the money we spend on ourselves.
Perhaps that is a little too cynical. I think most of us go for something more like this:
“Dear Santa-God, who makes wishes come true and everybody happy, I don’t want anything for myself. All I really want for Christmas this year is peace on earth.”
There’s nothing blatantly wrong with this kind of prayer, but it just seems so weak to me. The only image I can conjure for “peace on earth” is a Coca-cola commercial with lots of little kids of different hues holding hands and singing. That’s nice and all, but not exactly powerful. It’s certainly not going to bring a stop to the decade-old United States wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. It’s not going to stay the violent hand lashing out in anger at an innocent child. It’s not going to free the woman held captive to an abusive husband. It’s not going to make a suicide bomber stand down and stop making bombs.
And we all know it. Which is what bothers me. We all know that these prayers for peace are pathetic and weak. But we don’t really know what to do about it—so we just keep praying with the angels, for “peace on earth, good will to all.”
God is better than that. Our prayers should be worthy of God’s true power, God’s true longing for peace and the depth of brokenness in our human condition.
Peace, true peace, is not about wishes come true and smiling children and a contented, happy people. True peace is risky, uneasy, fragile, vulnerable, and challenging to all our contentedness. It requires courage and probably will make people unhappy. After all, war usually makes some people happy at the expense of making others miserable—I figure peace is probably going to make those victors lose some ground and leave them feeling displaced and discontented.
Isaiah and the Psalmist in this week’s readings—they really knew how to pray for peace on earth. In the Psalmist, I hear pleading, almost begging: “For the sake of my relatives and friends, I say: ‘peace be with you.’” That sounds like the kind of prayer that might be uttered by the spouse or parent of one of our soldiers currently deployed in a combat zone. Or even by the family of one of our enemies—terrorists have families too.
Isaiah takes it even further. He puts flesh on his prayer. He asks God to serve as judge between the nations, rather than allowing the victors of the war to set the rules and make the judgments. This is where the unhappiness comes in, as those victors see their privileges disappearing. He paints a picture of what peace looks like, in which human beings take their weapons of war and melt them down into tools for growing things. Swords into plows, spears into pruning hooks.
Behind both of these prayers, the thing that makes them so powerful is the absolute confidence that God can make that peace possible. It is the absolute conviction of the person praying that peace—no matter how fractious and uncomfortable—is what God wants, and what God’s followers want.
Can we pray with such conviction for peace on earth? What does a hearty prayer for peace really look like? Dare we pray for our armies and those of the terrorists to lay down their weapons? With the passion of the Psalmist and the specificity of vision of Isaiah, can we move beyond a generic “peace on earth” and start praying for a concrete vision of peace, with sacrifice? Are we willing to give up some comfort and even some happiness in exchange for peace? Will we let God’s peace reign in the world, knowing it may disrupt our way of life? Will we let God in, so peace is possible?
This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers, by Lillian Daniel and Martin Copenhaver, Eerdmans, 2009, 235 pp.
This is one of the best books I have read in a long time, and one of the best books I have ever read about the pastoral life. In the preface, the authors promise “a current book that is honest about the challenges of this vocation but still reflects the joy that can be found in it… an encouraging yet realistic book about the ministry written by someone who is still doing it.” (xiv) The chapters that follow make good on that promise.
Each chapter takes a particular experience in pastoral life (singular or recurring) and holds it up to the light, examining the specks and imperfections while simultaneously seeing the experience as a prism that reflects and refracts the light of God. They dissect everything from shaking hands at the back of the sanctuary and visiting hospital rooms to church fellowship hour and committee meetings. Without exaggerating or idealizing, Daniel and Copenhaver articulate why each of these little things matter, and describe the ways they have witnessed God’s light break through in these ordinary moments.
Sometimes, it feels as though they have pulled back the curtain to expose that we wizards behind the magic of the pulpit and pastoral presence are just ordinary, wrinkled, anxious human beings. Copenhaver’s chapter about “The Twin Imposters” of praise and criticism in ministerial life discusses the lavish praise pastors can receive for just showing up, even if we do or offer very little. Daniel’s chapter entitled, “Can We Be Friends?” takes on the challenging tension between wanting friends outside the church and wanting people to join your church. I suspect some clergy might want to avoid these kinds of revelations, but to me they only increase my respect for the work of ministry and for these two particular clergy. I admit I am even a bit jealous of their confidence and honesty—not to mention their way with words.
From the beginning, I put this book in dialogue with another account of the pastoral life: Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church. Taylor also describes the beauty and challenge of the pastoral life, but she does it with an underlying sense of frustration and incarceration that eventually causes her to leave the pastoral life altogether. I loved her writing about ministry, but did not share her conclusions. This Odd and Wondrous Calling is the antithesis of Leaving Church—Daniel and Copenhaver acknowledge the mess and the stress and then loudly declare their love for it. Daniel gives us images upon images that move and inspire, like identifying the church as “one of the last remaining homes of the no-cut audition,” (116) or seeing ”people who have no china of their own get to own the china of the church.” (27) While the whole of the book is not a response to Taylor, Copenhaver’s final chapter does take direct aim. Entitled “Staying in Church,” Copenhaver talks about Taylor’s book and concludes that pastoral life is simply a calling: “it is a good life, if you are called to it.” (234)
I am with Copenhaver and Daniel all the way. They point out that the pastoral life presents the opportunity to be better than you are, to grow in wisdom every day, to stand and witness God at work in people’s lives, and occasionally even serve as midwife to holy experiences. This book captures that life in all its complexity, sacrifice and joy. I recommend it to those considering ministry, preparing for ministry, living the pastoral life or contemplating leaving the ministry.
The authors strike a balance between honesty and awe at the pastoral life. The daily tasks of ministry are sometimes tedious, difficult, stressful or even ridiculous, but those same daily tasks draw us into close proximity with the Holy One all the time. It is a gift, a work, and most profoundly a calling.