Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Festival of Homiletics

This week, as part of my Sabbatical time, I'm in San Antonio for something called The Festival of Homiletics.. There are 1800 people here, and while sponsored by the Lutherans I've met Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, United Church of Christ folks, and one person from the holiness tradition. (As well as Lutherans!) It's like a music festival in this way; there are different venues - "stages," if you will - and so there is a lot going on that begins at 8:30 each morning and goes to the night. There is no way to do it all, so you pick and choose the preachers you are interested in, or want to hear more from. Most speakers preach a sermon in the context of worship and offer an hour-long lecture in another block. So far, after day one, I've heard Walter Brueggemann (twice), Anna Carter  Florence (twice), Rob Bell (lecture) and Nadia Bolz-Webber (preach.)

Wow! It's a lot to take in, which is why I've learned (this is my second festival) to have a plan and to pace myself. You just can't do it all! And two people can come and have completely different experiences.

Although it's all been good so far, I have two big takeaways to share. Both come from former professors of mine at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, where I received a Doctorate in Ministry degree.

First, Walter Brueggemann. Most people who know me know that I'm a big fan - it's a toss-up between him and Springsteen for who gets quoted more in my sermons. I love Brueggemann as a Biblical scholar and as a keen observer of society. But to be honest there are two more personal reasons I'm such a huge fan that go beyond his obvious gifts as a Biblical scholar. First, he hasn't stopped thinking. I had a chance to have a personal conversation with him to "catch up." I never know if he really remembers me as a student in his Jeremiah and Psalms classes but he always pretends that he does and the fact that I'm an Episcopalian who spent time at a Presbyterian seminary helps, so maybe he does. In any case he told me in that conversation, "you know, I'm 84 now." It was so sweet! But my response to him was that he has not just taken the "greatest hits" on the road. He's always thinking. He has more to say. He also is the only presenter I've seen at the two festivals I've attended who shows up at other people's events, as he did yesterday at Nadia's sermon and the evening before for Rob Bell. I commented about this to the Methodist pastor from the Bahamas who was sitting next to me and is attending his seventh festival and he said, "I know, I've noticed too..." He is a rock star in my field, but he encourages the next generation and I love that about him.

Related to this: he loves the Church, in all of it's complexity. His father was a pastor in a small-town and Walter really does like pastors. He knows how hard the work is. So he does this amazing lecture with seven theses, two Biblical texts, and four "case studies" in 55 minutes and then he concludes by saying, "we are in a Barmen situation, and the great temptation for pastors is to be chaplains to the old order." And then this: "I know it's hard in congregations and I know you can't just say everything I've just said in just this way in all those places. I get that. But even the people who resist you the most know in their bones that something isn't right, that the old order is coming apart, and they need for you to find courage and to also preach hope. I know this is hard, but I believe it's the task before us all."  Amen.

Second, Anna (who served with Barbara Brown Taylor as my two readers for my final DMin project) really has come into her own. When I was at CTS she was brand new and of course there were all those rock stars like Walter and Barbara on the faculty. But now she's come into her own and found her own voice. She spoke about paying attention to the verbs in Biblical text and while I won't do justice to it here I write it down because I think it's so helpful, not just to preachers but to readers of the Biblical text.

Here it is in a nutshell. First, she noted that as with all good writing, Biblical texts move. There are more verbs and nouns than adjectives, as there should be. But the challenge with Biblical nouns is that they are from Bibleland. We can't pronounce the names of people, places, and things. What's a cubit? Where is Nineva? Who was Gideon? We are always doing translation work which reminds us that those people lived a long time ago and we live now and that keeps us, as readers, distant.  They also keep us fighting and arguing about meaning.

Anna suggested we learn to focus on verbs which haven't changed. Men and women, young and old, gay and straight basically live with the same verbs: we are born and live and lose and hope and grieve and die.  Anna walked us through Genesis 3:7-8 and the verbs found there; just the verbs. [Adam and Eve's eyes] were opened. (Passive voice.)  They knew. Sewed. Made. Heard. Hid.

I can't do justice to the way she unpacked those verbs but the main advice was to study texts, with lay and ordained, by paying attention to the verbs. She told us in one of her M.Div classes she brought in some fig leaves and needles and thread and had her students try to sew themselves some garments. It didn't work well. Leaves don't keep their shape very long. They rip! It's an act of desperation, rooted in fear and shame. Most people have some experience with this, even if they don't know all the nouns in this or other texts!

The verbs draw us in. They take us somewhere. I think that'll preach! Now I'm off to hear some Brian McLaren, Lisa Thompson, and Otis Moss. I don't know the latter two but yesterday, among the 1800 folks gathered here, I sat at a table to eat lunch with Lisa Thompson's proud mother, who is a lovely person. I look forward to hearing what her daughter has to teach me.

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