Monday, April 24, 2017

What can we say come April 30? Emmaus / Easter 3

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   ** My newest book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, is available.  My forthcoming book, Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us About Powerful Leadership, will appear before too long.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

What can we say come May 7? Easter 4

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   ** I like listening to music while pondering texts, and what better than “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need,” and “The King of Love my Shepherd Is”?  

I’m going to violate my own counsel, which is to stick with just one text, and instead risk tackling three: Psalm 23, Acts 2:42-47 and John 10:1-10.  Dumb… but I’m hopeful.  Digging into these, my mind keeps drifting toward one of the loveliest quotes I’ve ever come across – and, risking the perils of eisegesis, I wonder if my sermon might somehow build toward these words from Evelyn Underhill:


You want to be one among the sheepdogs employed by the Good Shepherd.  Now have you ever watched a good sheepdog at his work?  He is not at all an emotional animal.  He just goes on with his job quite steadily, takes no notice of bad weather, rough ground, or his own comfort.  He seldom or never comes back to be stroked.  Yet his faithfulness, his intimate understanding with his master, is one of the loveliest things in the world.  Now and then he just looks at the shepherd.  When the time comes for rest they can generally be found together.

Especially if I can move toward Jesus the Good Shepherd now = us as the Body of Christ.  We will see.

Beginning with Acts:  Just like last week, the breaking of the bread is everything.  Something about meals, eating together.  When I preach on this, I can allude to a program our congregation is involved in – the “Pass the Peace Feasts,” in which we’ve joined with a neighboring and largely African-American congregation to eat meals together – not once, but regularly, and over a long period of time.  Wasn’t the mere fact of eating together a key to the early church’s success?  And with whom they ate!!!  Not people like us, but anybody, everybody – which stirred up all the dissension in Corinth (“Some arrive early and eat, then another is hungry,” 1 Cor. 11 – and it would have been the wealthy who showed up early and did the usual, leaving scraps – maybe – for the poor arriving later; still learning how to be church!).  Can you think of a story where a meal mattered?

There was also the remarkable, “communist” way of sharing possessions.  What could be more counter-cultural in our capitalist society?  How to preach this?  No use dinging people for being capitalists.  But how does the Gospel nudge or shove us toward a different way of conceiving of our possessions, and then what we do with them?  Think of people who’ve done this in radical ways – St. Francis, or Millard Fuller, or even Pope Francis, living in a hostel and riding around in a Ford Focus.  Do we “share” or just “donate” (recalling Wesley’s admonition that it is better to deliver aid than to send it)? 
Have you read Sam Wells’s amazing A Nazareth Manifesto?  It’s all about being with, not doing for – which is God’s way and the Church’s (ideally, hopefully).  Such a hard lesson for the churches and their people – but it’s the key to life, not gimmicks or ads or rock bands or snazzy worship.  Imperilled, Christianity survived and thrived in its early years – and why?  Tertullian noted the way critics had to admit, “See how they love.”  I don’t think he meant “loved silently and spiritually in their hearts.”  Julian the Apostate, failing to convert the empire back to paganism, complained that “the Christians take care of, not only their own needy, but ours as well.”


Here is where I like to ponder The Lord is my Shepherd.  I have an aversion to those hokey paintings and stained glass windows in which a really white, kind Jesus grins while snuggling with a little lamb.  Shepherds had to be tough, and the sheep were unruly – but more interestingly to me, how is Jesus a Shepherd today?  Same way Jesus is anything today:  we are the Body of Christ.  We are Jesus in the world now.  We are the Shepherd.  And Psalm 23 says that with the Lord, the Body as Shepherd, “I shall not want,” or “I shall lack no good thing.”  Isn’t that the church’s mission?  Is that inked into our strategic plans – that those where we are lack no good thing?


John 10:10 intrigues me, always.  I’d count this as the favorite verse of my father-in-law (Tom Stockton, a retired United Methodist preacher).  I love the way he could emphasize that Christianity is a full-bodied, all-of-life, joyful thing you live into and are invigorated by all the time; his license tag and email address both echo his primary preaching theme: "Live Alive!"  The Christian isn’t a forgiven person with a pulse; it’s someone with some passion for God and the people of God.

It’s easy for laypeople – and probably preachers too – to hear Jesus came to give abundant life.  I know what that is, and want it, so let’s get on with it!  Given the lure of the omnipresent “prosperity gospel,” I wonder how we find ways to clarify that this “abundant life” isn’t “the good life in America” with God as the securer of it.  No use slapping wrists for people getting confused.  I do like to point out the way the “seven deadly sins,” in some bizarre way, really do define the “good life” in America:  Greed, lust, pride, sloth, envy, gluttony and wrath (this last one being more popular than ever!).  Do we go to C.S. Lewis’s wonderful “The Weight of Glory,” in which he says our desires of things are not evil so much as just flat out too weak: we settle for baubles and money when God is literally dying to give us what is far more valuable?

What is this “abundant life”?  John defines it full in the rest of his Gospel.  It’s knowing the Word made flesh, being born again, drinking from Jesus’ living water, seeing (like, really seeing), washing feet, being out of sync with religious institutions, being led, comforted and challenged by the Spirit, being at peace with God and others, loving Jesus, feeding his lambs, etc.  Sounds cool – but can we trust that it is enough?

Who has embodied this abundant life?  St. Francis?  The Pope’s immense joy is contagious, to me.  My grandparents led very simple lives, but were deep with God and their little community. 

No single sermon will win the day.  Sheep “learn the voice of the shepherd and then recognize it” over a long period of time.  Required of the preacher is a “long obedience in the same direction,” a sustained, consistent speaking of the abundant life as what it truly is, and frankly, as abundant instead of some sacrificial drag.  There really is a joy in this Christian business.  The best the preacher can do, I think, is not merely to talk about it, but to exude it, in the eyes, through your pores, in your body language.  Hard sometimes, as ministry can be so discouraging – and especially the preaching part.  Jesus came for the preachers too, so they might have an abundant life. 

   ** My newest book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, is available.  My forthcoming book, Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us About Powerful Leadership, will appear before too long.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Preaching to those who adore, & those who loathe President Trump

How can we do a better job of preaching to people who adore Donald Trump, and to those who loathe him, when they are together in the pews in front of us?

When I’m constructing a sermon, I’ve often remembered what Zan Holmes said in a preaching conference years ago.  He spoke of a “gallery” in his office, photos and images of saints and heroes, and he imagines them looking over his shoulder, cheering him on, reminding him to be faithful and courageous.  I have Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther, Francis of Assisi, and Jesus himself with their eyes trained on me as I type right now.

I’ve expanded this when I’ve taught preaching myself – to include, at least in your imagination, who will be coming on Sunday.  The woman whose husband said “I’ve never loved you,” the man who just got fired, the mom whose daughter hates church, the dad whose grown son won’t return his phone calls.  And then also the people who won’t be there.  The unchurched, the homeless, a refugee, a rabbi friend.  And maybe my seminary professors, although I worry that when preachers prepare as if the professor of exegesis will be there, the sermon might be a touch on the academic or even pedantic side.

As of this week, I am rethinking all this – in light of something I found in Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.  It’s a great book that goes a long way toward explaining what we’ve seen in the past few months:  Clinton supporters being absolutely baffled and mortified by Trump supporters, and Trump fans mocking and harboring anger toward Clinton supporters.  Studies show that different people have different “taste receptors.”  To one group of people, if you speak of inclusion and caring for those in need, they nod warmly; but others are numb to the same appeal, or veer toward thoughts like personal responsibility and fairness.  
Everyone wants “fairness,” but it means different things to different people, as Haidt shows via photos.

Family of origin proves to be the origin of much of this: you’re 2 years old, your family drives by a beggar; in one family, words of sympathy are spoken or money is handed through the window; in another family, dad says “He should get a job.  I dug ditches when I was 17 just to get by.”  Liberals think authority should be questioned; conservatives think it should be heeded.  But “think” is the wrong verb.  It’s way down in the gut, way prior to reasons or facts.

Haidt gathers up all these studies and suggests that people have six such “taste receptors”:  caring, loyalty, fairness, authority, sanctity, and liberty.  Most people are strong on a couple of these, and lacking in others – which then is why we don’t comprehend what others are saying.  My first thought about this, regarding preaching, was basically Aha!  I’m talking about caring all the time, but a large number of those listening are authority/sanctity people.  No wonder they look puzzled.

Haidt would ask why we don't find ways to balance our appeals.  If I have a text that speaks tenderly about caring, I would be wise in that same sermon to find a way to speak to the importance of holiness.  If I am weighing in on the authority of Scripture and the importance of adhering to God's law, I need somewhere in there to speak of God's merciful loyalty to us, or of the joys of freedom.  If I want to underline the obligation to welcome strangers, and even immigrants, I might find a way to emphasize why law and order matters - which can play two ways, right?  Those who would reduce immigration think the law should be enforced - but we might agree if we are speaking of acts of violence against immigrants.  When you compose the sermon, think of Trump foes and Trump fans, and intentionally say something to both of them that will challenge but also comfort.  Press more than one button.

But then I read one of Haidt’s paragraphs, and a light bulb popped on in my head.  After retelling how he advised had Democrats to speak the language of and appeal to the emotions of those on the other side, instead of continuously affirming those already with them and further alienating those who aren’t, he added this: “I advised Democrats to stop dismissing conservatism as a pathology and start thinking about morality beyond care and fairness.  I urged them to close the sacredness gap between the two parties by making greater use of the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations, not just in the ‘messaging,’ but in how they think about public policy and the best interests of the nation.

Bingo.  Haidt helps me understand why much of what I say gets misunderstood, and he hints at ways to connect – but maybe more importantly, he dares to suggest that I might need to think more thoroughly about how I think.  As I try to take into account various kind of people and their passions, might that help me reckon with the diverse dimensions within Scripture and theology itself?  I might find a better strategy, and even be truer to what God is actually about.

Sure, we have an inevitable emphasis on caring.  But there is much authority and sanctity language in the Bible and our theology.  Could it be that if, instead of thinking just about Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and the woman whose daughter hates church, we conjured up a new gallery?  What if in sermon preparation I reminded myself that there are those who say Authority is to be questioned, and others who think it is to be heeded, or that there is the guy who loves the slogan “Tax the wealthy” sitting not far from another guy who loves the slogan “Spread my work ethic, not my wealth,” that a woman there is deeply sympathetic to the plight of a friend who had an abortion sitting not far from another woman who bore a child after testing indicated a defect was certain, so highly did she view the sacredness of life?  Not only might I find the way to reach all of them, if I intentionally appeal to all of them, but I might actually notice things in the text, and in our theological tradition I’d missed or just underemphasized because of the way my own brain/emotional self is arranged.

So I am going to experiment for a few weeks, especially in my weekly preaching blog I hope you’ll get via emailing me.  Dig into my text, find what I’m led to say, and then ask if I can say something, anything, with integrity, that appeals to the opposite set of taste receptors.  Is there something in this text for both sides?  I suspect the answer is Yes – and I might get a fairer hearing if I can offer something to everybody.