RSS Feed

Tag Archives: I think what?

On preaching, Part 1

A few weeks ago, a friend from Arizona wrote and asked me if I’d come up with some do’s and don’ts of preaching for a seminarian. “Something short, off the top of your head,” he urged.

My friend is a wonderful person, but I have never not had multiple opinions on anything. So coming up with a Buzzfeed-worthy listsicle on preaching wasn’t in the cards.

What I tried to do, instead, was to think about what made sermons compelling to me, and what I’ve learned in the short time I’ve been preaching.

Here’s what I came up with.

It is long, so this will be broken up into three posts, over three days.

On Preaching:
I have lots of thoughts about preaching, because I have lots of thoughts about pretty much everything. But I’ll do my hardest to contain myself, and put them into some sort of understandable format.

1. The pulpit is powerful.

This isn’t a do or don’t, so much as a rule that undergirds the rest.
When you step up to preach, you assume a lot of authority—whether ordained or not—by virtue of the fact that you are speaking within the liturgy, and as Episcopalians, it would take no less than the return of Jesus Himself for a congregant to stand up and contradict you openly. (And even then, I’m pretty sure the Altar Guild would consider it very bad form.) You have so many minutes to speak to your people about your common life and what God is up to and those people aren’t going anywhere. It’s the very definition of a captive audience (You are quite literally preaching to the choir) and what’s more, the vast majority of that audience will put, at least, some stock in what you’re saying.
It’s both a golden opportunity to say something important and life-affirming, and a huge risk to say something hurtful and alienating if you aren’t careful. So never underestimate the power of the pulpit, for good or for ill.

That being said…

2. Don’t lie from the pulpit.

Don’t EVER lie from the pulpit.
This may sound like a no-brainer, but I’m amazed at how often I hear people do it, and mostly unintentionally. Things like saying “When Matthew wrote this story…” (anyone who’s taken EFM knows that’s not how it went down), or glossing over textual contradictions. (I about walked out of church once in college when I heard a lay reader declare that this was “a lesson from Deuteronomy, which was written by Moses.” Gah.)
But there’s another layer to this, too—don’t feel the need to ‘prettify’ the Bible. Don’t smooth away the parts of the parables that make no sense, don’t try to pretend that the Johannine Jesus is more comprehensible than he is, don’t ignore the violence and the awful gender politics and the excuses for slavery that runs through the Bible.
Don’t lie by omission.
If you don’t directly address the ugly parts of the Bible, and the parts that don’t make sense, then people are left to either adopt whatever interpretation they hear, or just continue in a vague fog of Biblical misunderstanding left over from the 1930s. Neither one have served us well. You’re the preacher. It’s your job to expound and confront that text. Sometimes your job will be hard, but that doesn’t mean you get to avoid it. If there are no good answers, say that. If it’s a hard story, say that.
The more you can confront and name the discomfort in the safety of the liturgy, the more your people can confront and name the discomfort in the wider world.

In which British actors have a good grasp on privilege

I continue to ‘settle in’ here in KCMO. I got all the empty boxes out of my apartment last weekend, so I feel a corner has been turned, in the War of The Unpacking. But now that the apartment looks like a human dwelling, this puts more pressure on my office(s)–both of which still look relatively unoccupied. But these are minor inconveniences.
Work is beginning to make sense–I have memorized my chapel schedule finally, so I feel I have a handle on when I am supposed to be where, and with what children. This means I get to wander around the school and hang out in classrooms more when I’m at school, which is a blast.

And yesterday, as I posted on Twitter, I somehow or other ended up preaching on Benedict Cumberbatch and privilege. Afterwards, one of our teenaged acolytes came up to me and said that she was a HUGE Sherlock fan, so she was so psyched I referenced that in the sermon.

And here’s what I said.

September 1, 2013
Ordinary Time, Proper 17, Year C
Luke 14:1, 7-14

Benedict Cumberbatch has perhaps the most British name ever. And he is a fairly famous TV and movie star in the UK right now. He’s on Sherlock, on the BBC, and he was the voice of Smaug, in the Hobbit movie And a number of other British-y things.
And so, accordingly, he was being followed around by photographers last week.
And then, Benedict Cumberbatch did something rather amazing. Rather than get into a shouting match with them, or run and hide, or steal someone’s camera, that would have been par for the tabloid course, he held a sign over his face on which he had written, “Hundreds of people were killed in Egypt today. Go take pictures of something that matters.”

One quiet sign, one quiet action, and he made everyone think for a moment not about a rich TV star, but about the nameless hundreds dying in the streets of Cairo. He took all the power that the world handed him, and he used it for something really good…though the photographer might not agree.

This scene that we’re watching in the gospel is another one of Jesus’ awkward dinner parties. Jesus never seemed to be a very well-behaved guest at dinner parties, and here is no different.

He’s been invited to dinner on the Sabbath by a leader of the Pharisees–and that’s a pretty big deal. It’d be like the local congressman inviting you for a Labor Day BBQ. You’re there to see and be seen. There are some politics involved, and it’s an important invitation, with movers and shakers there. It’s a pretty big honor, actually, for Jesus.

And Jesus responds by loudly criticizing the entire gathering. It was customary for everyone to sit around a low table, with the host at the head, and the most important guests nearest the host. Seating order and placement was very important, because it revealed, and preserved, social hierarchy. You got to sit next to those closest to you in the pecking order, so you never really had to deal with those outside your status.

Everything was ranked, everything was stratified, and you knew where you fit. And most importantly, gosh darn it, you knew who was beneath you and who you were better than, in this system.

And Jesus looks at it, and wants no part of it. Jesus argues first, that if you’re smart, you’ll always sit lower than you should, in a lower position than you should so that you’ll be invited to move up, rather than being sent down a few rungs. That way, you’ll never risk losing face in front of all those important people you’re trying to impress.
But moreover, if you’re really smart, any time you throw a dinner party, you’ll never invite any of those important people to begin with.
If you’re really smart, Jesus says, you’ll invite people who actually need dinner. Invite the poor, the blind, the sick, the outcast. People who need what you have in abundance, not people you’re trying to impress. Chances are–they have dinner.

Share abundance with those who lack, Jesus says. It sounds so simple, and yet, it can be deceptively hard.

Especially because it can be hard to see our own abundance sometimes. Not so hard with things you can count–we learn that as children. You have two cookies, give one away. But it’s the things you can’t see, the intangibles that are trickier.

Especially since we live in a society that’s predicated on making us believe that none of us has abundant anything. Advertisers constantly run on reminding us of what we don’t have, and what we desperately need to be whole. New car, new clothes, new toys, new everything. If we don’t feel like we’re lacking something than we aren’t consuming things, and that’s no way to run an economy–so from every corner come voices telling us that we are in need.

When in fact, the reality is that every one of us has abundance of some kind. Every one of us has power. You got out of bed this morning? Good! That took power, that took abundance, because some folks can’t do that. You decided to come to the church of your choosing? Good. Some folks can’t do that. You ate breakfast this morning? Great, that took abundance. Since some folks can’t do that.

You came from your house to here without passing through a checkpoint? You can vote on Election Day? You can read a newspaper or a website and find out what’s happening in the city? You can go home without fear of what will happen to you when you get there–all these little things that we mostly don’t recognize are signs of abundance in one way or another.

And it’s so familiar to many of us that we don’t notice it. But this is abundance. This is the dinner party that we sit at, each and every day.

And the truth is that the abundance of the world is handed out so haphazardly in all directions and what Jesus calls us to do is to share our abundance with others, but in order to do that, we have to be conscious of what we have. We need to be conscious of our own abundance. The ways in which we have been given prominence at this world’s dinner party.

Not so that we can feel guilty–guilt doesn’t help. Guilt just paralyzes– but so that we can do our part to use our abundance in the service of others, and in the service of God’s kingdom. So we can use the power we have to help those around us.

And that requires us to be aware. To realize and be in touch with our own abundance. To recognize the times that we have it good, and someone else has it less good. Then to ask, what can I do to support them right now? How can I use what I have, the power I have, in service of those without?
We are called to use our voice for those who have no voice, as the proverb says.

The more we are in touch with the abundance we have, the more we come to realize the dinner party we sit at daily, in all sorts of ways, the more we can come to throw open the doors of that party to everyone, to spread our abundance ever wider. And the more the world will slowly come to resemble the reality of the kingdom of God, where all are equal, all beloved, all at one table.


Yes, and….Part 2

If you’re just joining us, you can read Part 1 here. You can read Rachel Held Evans’ original post here.
And now, there’s more!

3. There are Millennials who like to go to church.

Sweet 7lb, 9oz baby Jesus.
There actually are young adults in our churches. We are not Bigfoot.
But, honestly, it does, on occasion, become exhausting to go to a church (even one where you are, say, the supply priest for the week) only to hear how “You really should be out having fun, not being in boring old church! You’re way too young for this!”
Or “Wow. I only expect to see folks like you here after they get married and have kids! How old are you anyway?”
I like church. I’ve always liked church, ever since I was a baby. Seriously. There are colorful things to look at, there are pretty songs to sing. There is incense sometimes. Sometimes, there’s stuff to light on fire.
Church is how I learned to read, and it’s how I learned to read music. It’s how I learned that people other than my parents liked me. It’s where I got lollipops every week when I was a kid. It’s where I learned to speak in public, and read aloud, and not gag on wine.
This is not counting the mystery, transcendence, and magic, and beauty, and transformation, and awe and wonder.
So, please, do me a favor. Next time you see someone you don’t expect at church, someone who surprises you….just tell them that you’re happy that they’re there. And assume that they’re there to enjoy the same experience of God as you.

4. Millennials do stay. We should find out why.

This was wisely pointed out by Meghan Florian who points out that most young adults are in the church now because someone invited them in: asked them to join the Altar Guild, or teach a class, or help with something, or run for vestry. (She doesn’t say it, but this would be where programs like Young Adult Service Corps and Episcopal Service Internship become vital.)

But also, it should be stated, it starts before that.
I stayed in the church because when I was eight, I decided, in my childhood wisdom, a.) that my church needed a Christmas pageant and b) the reason we didn’t have one was that no one had written one yet. (My logic had some holes.)
Therefore, I took it upon myself that summer to write one, on my parents’ typewriter.
For whatever reason, I decided it needed to be a modern interpretation. Mary and Joseph were teenagers, who wore very ugly clothing, which prompted their removal from several chain hotels, before finally giving birth in the parking garage of a Doubletree Inn. Then, “they wrapped him in oily rags, and laid him in a hubcap.” (It goes on from there.) (There may be rapping involved. It was the early 90s.)
Not knowing what to do with me, my mother told me to show our rector my story. To his eternal credit, Fr. Ted did not immediately expel me to the outer darkness where dwell those who mock the Glorious Birth of Our Dear Savior. Instead, he laughed really hard, and said, “Oh great! Now we have a Christmas pageant!” He threw the weight of the church behind it, and we performed it that year. (And Fr. Ted went on to be bishop in Kentucky.)

As a result, in later years, when I was told that I was too young to have written a newsletter article, or I was too young to consider ordination, I didn’t hear it as the church telling me No. I heard it as evidence that the church was momentarily broken, so I should hold out for a bit, or else, fix it. Because the church wasn’t really like that. And sure enough, I eventually found a church community that thought me plenty qualified to write and seek ordination and do pretty much whatever else.

Moral is: when you welcome people (ALL PEOPLE. Even, and especially kids.) and treat them like they’re important and valued members of your community, then they will generally come to love and value your community in return.

And isn’t that what Jesus would do?

::insert title here::

I don’t have to preach anywhere today.
I’m a little grateful, selfishly, for that. I think my sermon would sound like an article from the Onion right now. “Let’s all hold hands and cry for a bit, because this is awful. And I don’t have words to make it comprehensible, or bearable.”

I spent Friday morning at the graduation of one of the Canterbury students. It was hopeful and joyous– the beginning of “real life” starting for a new generation. Just as it should be.
And then I got in my car, turned on the news, and heard about Newtown. Burst into tears.
Came home, checked Twitter, and watched the continuous feed of prayers, questions, and laments ascending.

There is so much unknown right now. We don’t know how this happened. We don’t know what the shooter was thinking. We don’t know why. We don’t know what will happen next, what we should do next. And, we don’t know why.

There is so much we don’t know. And there is so much to grieve for.

But there are some things we do know. (Not many. But a few.)

The first is that as our hearts are breaking, God’s heart breaks too. God remains present with us, grieving with us, in the midst of this tragedy. No human evil can separate us from the love of God– no mental illness, no violence, no despair, no anger, not even death itself. As we suffer on earth, God suffers with us. I don’t know why this happened, but I do know that God is with us, and with the victims, and their families as they grieve.**

And I also know this: we are called to do something. As we stand in our grief, and in our anger, and our sorrow, we are bid by Christ’s love to do something to make sure this doesn’t happen again. We are called to pray, and to grieve, but not only that.
Because we have gotten too good at this. Over and over we have watched parents mourn children who won’t come home. We have come to view public places as places of danger. We have begun to live in fear of each other, and our communities.
This is not the way it is supposed to be. This is not the way God calls us to live.
When John was speaking to those who came to him by the river’s edge, he didn’t just give them a baptism, and send them on their way. He told them to do something. To live different lives. To reflect their experience. Soldiers had to be merciful. Tax collectors had to not abuse their priviledge. Everyone had to share what they had with one another. They had to live differently.
We, too, if we want to avoid facing another day like Friday, have to ask ourselves, have to ask of God, “What then shall we do?” How can we change? How can we take better care of those who struggle with mental illness? How can we ensure that the tools of death are not unleashed on the vulnerable? How do we make for peace in our world?
Because the love of Christ that surrounds us now, as we stand on this river’s edge, this love of Christ compels us to care for one another in our sorrow, and empowers us to move together, and act together, to find a more peaceful day, as the dawn from on high breaks upon us.

May it come soon.

** And those who would suggest that somehow God turned his back on schools have a perverted, slanderous, and unbiblical view of Divine love. “If neither height, nor width, nor depth…nor anything in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus”, then surely the God of that sort of love shows up in public schools, and is with the children in them. To suggest otherwise borders on blasphemy. Period.

By the waters of ?

Because I may like footnotes a little too much (there had to be an intervention when I was writing my undergrad thesis), I cut a lot from the footnote at the bottom of the post from the other day.

Joyfully for all of you, I wrote more on the are-we-in-Babylon?-issue and posted it to the Acts 8 Moment blog.

A sample:

People who identify as Christian do not lack access to the levers of power in this country.  The disappearance of Christendom doesn’t come from a lack of power; it stems from a lack of authority.  And authority in the 21st century derives from authenticity: to what degree we live up to what we preach and teach–a very, very different thing from raw power.
Go read the rest of it, if you wish, here.