Sunday, January 24, 2016

What a preacher needs

When I entered the seventh grade, I had, for the first time in my school career, a choice of electives.  I chose Drama, and the first role I ever had was that of the nefarious Squire Blackheart in a fairy-tale comedy called “The Thwarting of Baron Bolligrew.”  To my surprise, it turned out I was quite good, and after our performance, I found myself in the wondrous and terrifying position of being mobbed by gushing eighth-grade girls.  It was a degree of triumph I would never repeat, but thus began my flirtation with theatre that continued through high school and into college.  I say “flirtation” because I met some friends along the way for whom it was a full-fledged romance.  They were destined for a lifetime of waiting tables in New York City, and going to thousands of auditions, for the sake of the occasional minor role.  And I was never one of those.
I did dream of being an actor when I was younger, just as I dreamed of being a rock star, and a jungle explorer, and a quarterback.  But by the time I was an adolescent, when the question “what do you want to be when you grow up” starts to take on a little more gravity, it was clear to me that, while I enjoyed my time in the theater, it wasn’t my life’s work.   What I did not have the foggiest notion about, however, and would not for years and years, was that it was training for my true vocation.  I did not know it, and would have laughed in your face if you’d told me so at the time, but I can see now that it was part of my training to be a preacher. 
There are skills I learned doing school plays that I still use every week: simply being comfortable speaking or singing in front of a crowd, for instance, or projecting my voice to fill a room; how to vary the inflection of my voice for dramatic effect, or the use of comedic timing.  In preaching, as in acting, there is a text to interpret—in one case, the script of a play, in the other a passage or passages of scripture.  But what the actor and the preacher do with their texts are very different.  The task of the actor is to enter the text, so that the character she plays takes possession of her, and comes to life on the screen or on the stage.  This draws the audience into the world of the play, to know human emotion and human experience with a vividness we rarely match in our real, everyday lives.   
But a preacher’s job is not to draw her listeners into the biblical world, but to bring that world into ours.  So, in a way, the sermon that Jesus gives in Chapter 4 of Luke is the essence of Christian preaching.  Like any good preacher he begins with his text, in this case, Isaiah 61.  He also has a sense of drama.  When he finishes reading he sits down, and for a moment he says nothing, holding the attention of the room, letting the tension build in the silence until time itself seems to stop, waiting to hear what he will say.  When he does speak, he does not break that tension.  If anything he heightens that moment of suspense, so all the meaning of Isaiah’s text can enter it.  And what Jesus says is that these are not empty words.   They are full.  They are full of the power and truth of what is happening to you in this place, right here, right now. 
They are words about a mission, that is moving in the world by the proclamation of good news.  News is about what is happening now, and it is good when it is about what is breaking forth from this time, from these circumstances, that bears the fingerprints of God.  We can recognize those fingerprints because the purposes of God are consistent and unwavering.  God’s purpose to preach hope and victory to the poor, to announce release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and liberation to the oppressed, was the same in Jesus’ day as it was in Isaiah’s and still is in ours.  And yet these are just words, just words in a book unless someone makes the proclamation. 
So when Jesus says “today this scripture is fulfilled,” he is talking about himself.  He is announcing that God has sent him, for the purpose that has always been there, for anyone to read in the law and the prophets.   His words are full of the Spirit’s creative power and so they give the grace that they declare.  Jesus’ preaching is not about good news, it gives good news, opens eyes, frees the captive and oppressed.  It inaugurates the year of the Lord’s favor, on an ordinary Sabbath morning in Nazareth of Galilee. 
But Jesus is also speaking about his audience.  This scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing, he says.  And this little added prepositional phrase, literally “in your ears”, is as central to Jesus’ preaching as the rest of it.  It poses questions to his hometown neighbors that they can only answer for themselves—did you hear me?  Do you believe that I fulfil the words the prophet said?  Or are you still holding those words at a distance, as if they belong to another time, another life, another world? 
These questions have not lost their significance, not least because the prophetic mission that Jesus claimed for his own has lost none of its urgency.  The news for the poor today is just about as bad as it ever was.  There are still countless captives waiting for release, and oppressed people dying to be free.  What may be less clear is how these ancient stories can speak to them, let alone to us.  And I guess that’s work that falls to me, as a preacher—to try to make that connection.  It’s no small task, under any circumstances, but to do it week after week after week is the hardest thing about my job.   I think it may also be the most important.  There is an element of craft involved, as with any other kind of work, and the longer one does it, the more confident and skillful in that craft one becomes.  But I must say, and forgive me if this sounds immodest, that I could not do it without the gifts of the Holy Spirit. 
The first of these gifts is a simmering discontent, a questioning and thirst for liberation that will not go away.  It’s a dissatisfaction so thorough that drugs cannot tranquilize it, and therapy will not heal it; meditation will not calm it, and political ideology won’t explain it away.  It is a questioning that will not be satisfied with any answer less complete than the answer given by God. 
The next gift I think you need to preach is the faith that this answer is in the Bible.  Not that you are picking out verses to memorize, but that the more you read it, and the more of it you read, the more you can begin to see what it is really trying to say.  So I try to read it every day, and to listen to what I read as closely as I can.  I try to keep the attitude that these words are not empty, but that Christ is speaking in them, if only I can hear, about his fullness. 
Another spiritual gift a preacher needs is the faith that her own experience somehow reflects what is written in the scriptures.  The connection is often quite tenuous.  Sometimes as I’m preparing to write my sermon, I find myself thinking about something that’s happened to me that seems completely unrelated to the texts I’m supposed to preach on that week.  But when I keep working—working with the text and working with my own experience—I find that the edges of each grow toward one another, and begin to interweave in ways I could never have foreseen. 
Finally, and most of all, a preacher needs the gift of people to preach to, people who will listen.  A preacher needs people who share his holy discontent, his longing for the good news of God.  He needs a congregation who read the Bible, and listen for the voice of Christ.  He needs a community where people are looking for how that voice is speaking in their own experience, who trust in, and act on, the authority of what it tells them.  He needs people with the faith and the courage speak with that voice in their own lives, who let it anoint them and send them with their own gifts of the Spirit, to proclaim good news to the world.      

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Responsibility and Freedom

I spent the last couple of days in Auburn, where the Sierra foothills start to rise out of the Central Valley, east of Sacramento.   I was at a retreat center run by the Roman Catholic Sisters of Mercy, but, while the event I was attending was called a retreat, it’s purpose wasn’t prayer or meditation.  It was a “retreat” more or less in the sense that corporations or large non-profits use the term—which is to say it was more like a three-day meeting.  Actually, it was two meetings.  From Thursday afternoon through Friday afternoon I met with the Bishop, and his assisting priest, whose formal title in Episcopalese is Canon to the Ordinary, and five of the six other regional deans in our Diocese.  Then, the members of the Diocesan Board of Trustees arrived, and we had more meetings on Friday evening, and yesterday morning.  They were still at it when I left yesterday after lunch, and in fact, they are meeting again this morning as we speak.
I won’t try to tell you much what those meetings were about, not because we talked about anything secret, or things you wouldn’t understand, but because I kind of assume you wouldn’t be all that interested.  There were moments over the past couple of days when I wasn’t interested myself, but not actually that many.  I came away tired, because I didn’t sleep very well, and there wasn’t much time for exercise, and because, as an introvert, there’s only so much time in meetings I can take.  But I also came away feeling lifted up by the experience of being with people I have come to love and respect, with whom I can speak and hear about questions that really matter in the work that I do. 
This hasn’t always been the case when I’ve come away from Diocesan meetings.  There was a time in the past when I would have said that the work of governance and oversight in the church is tedious, and alienating, and dull.  When I try to understand what has changed between then and now, I could certainly relate it to the people I get to work with now, from the Bishop on down.  But, to be honest, I think what has changed most of all is me.  I used to go to those meetings and feel like an outsider, like someone who wasn’t really part of the tribe, but now I feel like I belong.  I have a defined and significant role to play.  People want to hear what I have to say—they respect it and take it seriously, and as a result I can say what I’m really thinking.
Like it or not, we human beings exist in community.  And like it or not, that means meetings.  It means governance, and decision-making, working through conflict, settling questions of authority.  It means politics.  “Politics” has come to be almost a dirty word in our vocabulary, a word we say with a mixture of cynicism, wariness, and contempt.  But I’m convinced that this is only because we are alienated from the process.  Politics becomes tedious, and ugly, and draining, and frustrating, when we don’t feel like we belong, when we feel like no one is listening.  It is sad to see this happen in any context, but it is especially hard to see it happen in the church.  Because at least part of what brings people to church is the need and desire to belong. 
And our responsibility is to show them that they do.  Not by telling them the rules and behaviors they have to adopt, or the things they have to say they believe, or by spelling out for them what are the steps to formal membership in our organization.  The church is truly itself when it shows people with actions that speak for themselves that they belong here, in the broadest possible sense.  They belong here in the church, but more than that they belong here in this world.  They have a place and a purpose, and a voice, and a name that is theirs because the God who made them and loves them gave it to them.
Our identity as Christians, and this thing called “church,” is something we belong to, not something that belongs to us.   And one of the basic teachings of our faith is that we belong only by the grace of God.  The teachings of the New Covenant tell us that, although we are Gentiles, it was God’s will that in Jesus Christ we should be made fellow-heirs of the promises of God.  We are, In other words, honorary Jews.  So when the Hebrew scriptures say that we are a people created by God for his glory, that it is God who formed us and called us by name, for we are God’s sons and daughters, those words are for us.  But the whole history of prophecy in Israel is a warning to us that this gift is never fixed into a final form.  Who we are, as people who are precious in the sight of God, is an identity that has to be continually renewed by the creating spirit of God, if it is not to become an idol of our own making. 
The story of John the Baptist sums up that prophetic warning in a powerful way.  The baptism that John offered at the Jordan wasn’t just an individual act of contrition, it was a collective act of repentance for Israel’s sins, and her helplessness to renew her own identity as the people of God.  What used to work isn’t working any more.  Things that used to make sense have become absurd, even deadly, because the conditions have changed.  Something new is needed, and we can’t begin to know what it is unless we first admit that we are at a dead end, we are stuck and don’t know how to move forward.   We need new insight, new energy, new inspiration, so that together we can find a new way to live.  And if that is to be true renewal, and not just the unconscious repetition of patterns from the past, it has to come from God—it has to be not simply renewal, but re-creation.
We can’t forget that this is where Jesus stepped onto the stage of history.  This is where his public ministry began.  Jesus, who had no sins of his own to repent, nevertheless went to receive John’s baptism of repentance.  He did it, not out of a sense of personal guilt, but because he identifies himself completely with his people, with their suffering and desperation and longing for a complete and radical renovation.   He joins in with their collective plea for forgiveness by being baptized in the Jordan, showing he is right there with them, stuck, at a dead end, sharing their need for the new beginning that only God can give.
And that is where our own Christian ministry begins.  People often express outrage or at the least confusion over the idea that their perfect little babies need cleansing from their sins.  That’s completely reasonable, but is based on a misunderstanding of the identity that we are baptized into.  Because the starting point of the Christian life is not a sinful individual made perfect.  It is participation in Jesus’ act of identifying himself with the sin and suffering of the whole human race.   This participation is not a private and personal experience of grace; it is a public act of incorporation into a body.  And this body does not belong to itself, as a world apart.  It belongs to the world that God has also created, which God also loves, which is also full of God’s glory.
In his baptism Jesus immersed himself in the collective predicament of his people, but that is not the whole story.  He got out of the water, Luke says, and as he was praying, heaven opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  This baptism of the Holy Spirit is the gift, not of a collective identity, but of a personal mission.  Belonging to the church does not only mean belong collectively to the world, it also means belonging personally to God.  It means putting on Christ, which is a new kind of personhood.  It means being completely and compassionately grounded in the real, concrete forms of belonging that makes us human, belonging to a mortal body, to a place, to a people and their history; and at the same time being utterly open to ongoing re-creation by the spirit of God. 
So let’s keep this in mind when we invite people to church, and when we come here ourselves.   We are not coming here to parcel out what belongs to us, but to pray for a gift.   And this gift is deadly serious, but more than that it is child’s play.  It is the greatest, most universal sense of human responsibility—complete identification with the suffering of the whole world.  And at the same time it is an invitation to try anything you like to address that suffering, and to do so fearlessly, because you have complete permission to fail.  Belonging to Christ is ultimate freedom, the freedom to grow and to learn and to change, to become what God is eternally creating you to be.  It means sharing the freedom of the children of God.

About Me

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Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.