Friday, May 15, 2015

Another Takeaway from Denver: Preach the Text

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer)
This post is the second in a series; it might make sense for you to read part one here before continuing, if you've not done so already.

I arrived at the Festival of Homiletics on Monday afternoon and then went to the gathering Eucharist where Nadia Bolz-Weber preached. She was one of the big draws for me to this festival, a person whom previously I had read and seen on video but had not heard live. Her homily was great, but not in the way that makes you think "what a great preacher." Rather, it was great in the way that makes you want to be an equally close and authentic reader of the text. She preached on the story of the disciples on the way to Jerusalem with Jesus, when they are arguing about who is the greatest. She did all the solid exegetical work and it was a good solid sermon. But then she looks up and says, "I think you all already know this. You are preachers. You've preached on this text. But as I lived with this text this week, I thought that maybe we don't always need to be compared to the disciples who never get it right. Maybe we could find our way into this text through this little child whom Jesus holds before us..." And from that point to the end of the sermon was pretty brief, and very powerful. She talked about why it is that anyone argues about being the greatest or having the largest congregation or not being good enough - that child within us that does not feel loved but is, in fact, beloved of God.

The thing about Nadia is that she may not look very orthodox, but her theology is actually very solidly Lutheran: God's grace is sufficient. Period. It's all about the grace...

In just about everything I've read by her and what I heard this week, it's the same. What is so compelling about her is not her theology, but the truthful, honest, authentic witness she brings into the room. She believes what she is saying, apparently to the bones. She trusts the text to lead her to good news. In her lecture the following morning she unpacked this: "I always believe that I need to find the good news in the text for me. I'm not there to scold people, but to proclaim the good news." She also rightly pointed out that the preacher needs to be in the sermon - but from our scars, not our wounds. We need to be vulnerable, but not put our "shit" out there for everyone else to deal with. That's sometimes a hard distinction to make, but a good one to articulate. (I once heard Alan Jones say in a similar context, "don't inflict your psycho-drama on your congregation!)

Walter Brueggemann -well, he was Walter. What else can be said?  Those who are readers of this blog know that I've read just about everything he's written. Walter was one of my teachers at Columbia Theological Seminary, an institution that granted me a doctorate in ministry degree exactly a decade ago. He's ten years older - aren't we all? But his passion, his energy, his prophetic voice - his hope - amazes me. It truly just amazes me. But again, part of what I love about him is that he's the real deal and he isn't going around doing his greatest hits. He remains such an imaginative and close reader of texts.

His lecture was entitled "Fidelity Amid the Seductions of Certitude." Again, though, he was inviting us to read the texts - and not just the lectionary texts, to discover there the layeredness and depths of God and of God's people that can never be reduced to easy answers. His argument is that in the midst of empire, the Church may be the only place left where we can resist certitude and wrestle with the hard questions. While even the Church may resist this at times, because it's hard work not only for the preacher but those in the pews, this is the work God has given us to do...

And finally (at least for this post) - it was great to see my DMin advisor at Columbia Theological Seminary, Anna Carter Florence. Her sermon was on one of Phyllis Trible's Texts of TerrorJudges 19. ( A warning to my readers, none of whom I imagine is under eighteen - this text is rated R, or perhaps even X.) Before she read it she spoke about why she was preaching on it - and of course it goes without saying it's not a text that ever comes up in the lectionary. It is hard, using Nadia's hermeneutic to find "good news" or to imagine ever wanting to preach on this text but like Trible before her, Anna made the case as to why we cannot silence these texts either.

Both Anna and Walter reminded us to pay attention to the verbs in texts - this text includes verbs like seizing and raping and cutting up. And as she noted, all these verbs assault us daily on the evening news - it's not like we don't hear them. But we tend to lock them out of the Church.

Prior to those verbs of seizing and raping and cutting up, Anna noted it all begins when "he took to himself a concubine." It's a one-way relationship in terms of power and she challenged us to see that we participate in those kinds of relationships whether we want to admit to it or not. We use people and when you use people it very often ends violently. We take people, and things, to ourselves, for our own purposes - which has nothing to do with loving neighbor.

Many years ago I did a week of continuing education with Phyllis Trible herself, at a program that no longer exists at the National Cathedral called "The College of Preachers." I came back determined to preach the four texts of terror and did so as a young, naive associate rector in Westport. It was really hard in a parish and I'm not sure I'd do it again - and certainly not now as a visiting preacher. And I am not sure Anna was urging us to all go home and preach on this text. But she did say this: if it cannot be preached among preachers, where would it be preached? It is part of the Bible - in fact when she finished reading Judges 19 she concluded, "The Word of the Lord." Only a few, perhaps out of habit, offered the liturgical response, "thanks be to God."

Too many people think the Bible is like a cookbook, and if we just follow the recipes, add water, and stir we'll end up as "good people." Or worse, a rule book - and the Almighty is "keeping score."  The truth is that when we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest these old texts - even the terrible ones - they have the power to lead us to hope, to everlasting life - to the Word-made-flesh, Jesus. I leave here reminded in new ways to resist the temptation toward easy answers - not just in sermons but as we try to articulate an ecclesiology of hope in desperate times. I leave here with a renewed commitment to fidelity, even in a context that seduces us with certitude.


  1. Thank you for sharing these notes. I cannot wait to learn more from your time at the Festival of Homiletics. A true feast for all.