Address for Preaching Excellence Conference - 25th Anniversary
I want to invite us to consider what kinds of proclamation are likely to be needed as we move into the future that God is creating all around us. We live in a world that’s changing rapidly, is increasingly interconnected, and at least in much of the developed world, functions more and more on a virtual level. Basic human challenges continue – not least our fallen nature, but in particular, poverty, hunger, war, illness, and a widening chasm between the poor and the wealthy. We still have the ability to grow enough food for all the people of the earth, but not the will to distribute it to all. We have unimagined abilities to heal disease, yet growing numbers of people have no constructive access to that healing. As a species, our numbers and our consumption habits are wreaking havoc on the ecosystems and geophysical systems that sustain all life on this planet.
The electronic nature of much of our communication brings one kind of connectedness – seeming to know intimate details of lives reported on twitter and Facebook – but it also yields a harvest of loneliness and isolation from deeper, incarnate human contact. The exploding fund of knowledge means we know more about what happens across the globe and less about our near neighbors’ deepest longings. The business of information harvesting means that large corporations know a great deal about us that used to be considered private, from social security numbers to microscopic details of our browsing and buying habits – and probably what we had for dinner last week. We are being commodified whether we like it or not, and for many that only adds to the sense of a world descending into anomie and lack of respect for basic human dignity. At the same time, that data mining offers new opportunities for constructive engagement with poverty, disease, and social dysfunction.
The globalization of markets and economies is contributing to wealth disparities at the same time that poverty statistics show some significant improvement in the numbers of the hungriest. Some of that is the fruit of interconnected commitment to projects like the Millennium Development Goals, and the ability to measure results, share learnings quickly, and tell the stories widely.
We have seen the end of conflicts in South Africa and Ireland that few ever expected. Other conflicted areas seem more hopeful than in years past – Sudan, perhaps eastern Africa. At the same time political systems seem paralyzed in Israel/Palestine and Korea, and while growing violence in Syria and Pakistan makes many increasingly fearful, there are signs of hope alongside the despair. This nation looks toward an end to our prosecution of distant wars, yet the human damage from those wars will be with us for many years to come.
Good news is needed in our day at least as much as at any time in the Christian era. The spiritual hunger and yearning we see everywhere is an unavoidable sign. How shall we tell the good news of God in Jesus in these days?
I want to suggest that reading the context is the first essential. What stories do you hear? If you ask the people around you about their lives, about what is meaningful and not, what their joys and pains are, what do they say? What are the anxieties, yearnings, dreams, and how are all of these spirit-questions expressed? What’s the neighborhood tweeting about? What stories do people tell? When we begin to have some sense of the life of the community where we are, both its interior life and its external realities, then we can begin to know how to tell the good news – and not before.
By way of example, consider how violence is experienced in some of the different contexts preachers encounter – in parishes and beyond. Consider the particularity of life-denying violence and the places where hope is likely to be encountered. The evangelical task of the preacher is to point to that hope.
The reality of life on many Native American reservations today reflects centuries of broken promises, trashed possibilities, and hope snatched out of the mouths of infants and the hearts of elders. Suicide rates are many times those of the wider population. There are reservoirs of hope, particularly among elders with a connection to their history and where there are significant communities of support. There are also many deep resonances between the Christian story and elements of indigenous spiritualities. An effective preacher in a context like that knows the stories and has some understanding and respect for those connections and complexities. The brothers of Taizé have been encouraging young pilgrims to build bridges of hope and connection in the middle of a Lakota reservation in South Dakota. This week and last indigenous peoples from around the globe have been at the United Nations advocating for justice, particularly in the face of mining companies’ interests in their ancestral lands. The gospel is being proclaimed in presence and solidarity.
The growing suicide rate among veterans and members of the military has some parallels – broken promises about numbers and length of deployments, trashed ethical systems related to initiating these wars as well as the treatment of prisoners and civilians, and as we are increasingly aware given rates of sexual violence, even a lack of respect for the basic human dignity of fellow soldiers. A preacher will have to search for the reservoirs of hope, likely discovering them in officers and enlisted personnel with their own deep faith grounding, and in the families and communities who welcome returning veterans and seek to provide communities of healing for all.
Communities like Boston and Newtown and Columbine that have suffered shocking and surprising events of violence bring their own challenges. Good news must be sought in the network of humanity that suffers and stands in solidarity when its members are wrenched away, and still commits itself to a meaningful, loving, and hopeful future – a future that is not mired in vengeance but soaked in meaning-making and building a new and more life-giving future.
The violence of our lives, at the very personal level of illness and loneliness, in regions that suffer natural disaster, and in the global context that is not so slowly frying its flora and fauna – those forms of violence can only be met by the kind of anti-violence that Christians call hope, and the expectation of abundant life. The job of the preacher is to offer that vision of abundant life in ways that can not only be heard, but that can lead to transformed hearts and actions – through enfleshed evidence of abundant life, and encounter with that holy reality.
Preaching is about transformation, whether we’re talking about forming disciples, building communal systems of justice, or binding up the broken-hearted. It is a particular form of leadership, in the understanding that all leadership is intended to motivate change. To be effective, it has to communicate in ways that stir interest, commitment, and even resistance, for that means the Word has been engaged. Preachers must be agents of change, not chaplains to the status quo, for we have not yet arrived at the fullness of the Reign of God.
We live in an age that depends on visual imagery and narratives to communicate meaning, rather than deductive reasoning or propositional preaching. Those latter forms communicate to only a tiny fraction of our hearers, for they are basically closed communication forms. Fixed answers and solutions tend to exclude creative participation by the hearer. Preaching ought to invite and open all the homiletical conversation partners (the preacher included). The language we use can be iconic, in the sense of pointing beyond itself to greater possibility. It is possible to teach without being stuck in academic language and dogmatic formulae; example, story, and invitation are far more effective. If we truly believe we are made in the image of God, then all human beings participate in divine creativity. Our preaching needs to reflect that, and invite participation in beauty, poetry, surprising connections, dreams, new interpretations, playfulness, and joy. How else are we to give evidence of the hope that is within us?
If preachers and their congregational conversation partners are going to dwell in the Word, and abide in the Word incarnate, the power of words and language must be taken with utmost seriousness – and equivalent playful creativity. Consider the layers of meaning evident in Jesus’ own invitational conversation – parables, connections with the fount of Hebrew scripture, deep irony, and humor that we often miss. Consider the context of your preaching, and make connection with other tongues and languages both local and more globally – invite transgression of comfortable borders and usual boundaries. Reflect on the origin and context of the biblical narrative, and how its meaning has changed and not changed over the millennia. Notice words changing resonance: nice in Shakespeare’s and King James’ English meant stupid (not knowing), somewhat later it had a vapid or lukewarm nuance – Jesus did not call us to be naaaahs! – and now it’s an almost useless word, with little meaning at all.
We live in a society that often assumes that Christianity is mostly about guilt and imposing rules and requirements on others. That is even true among some Episcopalians, particularly older generations. They remember all too well the penitential flavor of the old liturgies, and the era of “Father knows best” or knuckle-rapping nuns. Preachers in our tradition don’t need to impose guilt. Evoking compassion, whether for the sinner, the offended, or the larger community, is likely to be far more transformative, and it’s far likelier to eventually elicit repentance and lasting amendment of life.
The world around us increasingly needs leaders (those change-agents, again) to give voice to our shared lament and name our anger, grief, and despair at what is broken, lost, and missing. We share an image of the creation God intends, and know that we’re still a very long way from seeing that dream realized. Yet even the ability to name that dream offers hope. We claim the capacity to name the good news around us, in the presence of God at work bringing resurrection out of death, creativity out of brokenness, and God revealing the divine presence. Pointing to the possibility of encountering the divine and the reign of God in the daily round as well as on transfigured summits is perhaps the most essential task we share. It is a task we share with the wider community; our preaching and pulpits can honor and include the gifts of those others, we can expand the conversation and the dimension of community, including the distant neighbor as well as the ones next door. That is an essential part of engendering and encouraging hope – the result of eating and digesting good news.
Preaching in this emerging era shares tasks with the proclamation in any age, yet there is real urgency in this age about loving all our neighbors. The preacher normally attends to what this particular encounter with the Word offers for someone’s daily life, but I urge you to keep pushing that local push for transformation outward. Part of the homiletical framework will always have to attend to how this sermon might help the hearer negotiate fights with a boss, or struggles with spouse or children. Don’t stop there. How will this meal of Word help me care for my neighbors, and just who should I care about? What does it really mean to love them? Are they just the folks next door or does neighbor include all humanity, and all creation?
The particularly urgent form of original sin today is about consumerism, hoarding, and accumulating. It is a challenge as old as humanity, but the consequences for the rest of creation are far greater today than ever before. How do we help ourselves and others to ask when enough is truly enough? Loving God and neighbor requires our urgent and continual attention to caring for the wider creation. There will be no peace and little justice otherwise.
That particular focus on accumulating is being exhibited, particularly in North America, in a parallel and excessive attention to safety and security. When we have so much stuff to protect (those old barns, again), then it’s much easier to focus on the question about whether this visitor is an enemy or a neighbor. Soon, no one is safe. I’m never fully secure nor can I be sure any other person is really safe enough to let down my guard enough to start a conversation or friendship. Without vulnerability, there can be no real love of self, God, or neighbor. Vulnerability becomes powerful and effective by its very weakness, as the gospel reminds us over and over. Love of the other is not possible without some relinquishment of safety and security. Until we let down that protective fence, we are always going to see the other, the outsider, the foreigner, the different as potential if not actual enemy. Humor may the most powerful means to lowering those barriers. Compassion is another. Both depend on vulnerability.
I would like to suggest that the virtual world of electronic communication is an important venue where preachers have an ability to encourage transformation. Blogs and related forms of communication offer the opportunity both to savage human dignity and to invite a holier encounter. The first makes face to face relationship more difficult if not beyond imagining, and the second just might begin to facilitate the kind of friendship that Jesus offers. How might social media, blogs, and YouTube promote the kind of human community that will sit down to a feast together, where all know they are in the presence of the holy?
What change or transformation do we hope for?
Preaching – yesterday, today, and tomorrow – means helping hearers and ourselves connect with the holy, the divine, with God: connecting in awe and mystery as well as immanent presence, in ways that lead to deeper and more abiding relationship – so that we might live, and move, and have our being well connected to those springs of eternal life. The aim of preaching is to aid transformation, so that living water begins to flow within us and through us into the wider creation, that it, too, might be healed and restored and reconciled.
Transformation happens in connection with incarnation – finding the holy in the daily, in present bodies, and in surprising encounters. Transformation is being surprised by grace and discovering that undefended participation in reality makes that surprising encounter easier and more frequent.
Transformation generates confidence rather than anxiety – a humble confidence, rather than dogmatic certitude. Connection to that well of life develops a generosity of spirit expressed in an open mind, an open hand, and an open heart. Knowing that we are loved beyond imagining makes it easier to reserve judgment about situations and neighbors – for we can always expect to be surprised!
In all of this work of proclamation a certain transparency is essential – not in the sense of sharing all the earthy data of our own existence, but in letting the light we know shine through. Whatever authority a preacher has is rooted in that kind of authenticity. We are vehicles of conversation with the holy, ever hoping that God’s spirit will speak to others through us, sometimes in sighs too deep for words. We are meant to invite others into that conversation in ways that open us all to greater connection – like opening a less-defended and larger diameter well into that artesian source. Practicing this art of preaching is most certainly about drilling for that water. Keep drilling – not boring. Better yet, open up and let the water flow.
One example: Anglican Communion Environmental Network resources: Think.Eat.Save: http://www.aco.org/acns/news.cfm/2013/5/29/ACNS5397