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The Insinuate God (or what I won’t be preaching this Christmas Eve)

“You must know, moreover, that the corruption which had set in was not external to the body but established within it. The need, therefore, was that life should cleave to it in corruption’s place, so that, just as death was brought into being in the body, life might also be engendered in it. But if death was within the body, woven into its very substance and dominating it as though completely one with it, the need was for Life to be woven into it instead, so that the body by thus enduing itself with life might cast corruption off” (Athanasius,. St. Athanasius On The Incarnation. 1st ed. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, 1953, 80-81.).

Christmas may be many things; simple is not one of them.  In preparing for preaching this season, I’ve some across so much advice to just “keep it simple” and to “let the story tell itself.” Perhaps that might be good advice for the sermon; simplicity in preaching is certainly a virtue to be cultivated. But the incarnation as a choice of God is not simple. Nor is it easy.

Athanasius reminds us that the enfleshment of God is not a simple matter of God becoming one of us; the point of this move by God is not to simply give us a way to become more like God.  No easy equivalence is reached in the manger. What God is doing at Christmas is simple as reversing corruption, unrotting the meaty heart of humanity. Have you ever un-turned spoiled flesh? Simple, right?

Christmas is simple like chemo is simple; here is the chair, the needle, the bag. All obvious. But beneath the camouflage of skin real work ensues: “Life..woven” into our flesh. God with us, raging with us against the dying of the light.

For Athanasius, God is incarnate in Christ, and more: God is insinuate, from the latin in + sinuare = to bend, wind, curve into.  While he does not use this term, insinuation sounds like a more apt description than incarnation. Tendrils unfurl from the stump of Jesse and wind their sinews into all our foul stuff. And gradually, lovingly, often painfully relieving us of the Death of which our physical death is but one token. The incarnation is not a happy bridge that, once built from God’s side of the chasm, provides the transport that I simply could not build before. No. Christ has insinuated himself into my marrow; I surely did lack the Way. But I lacked so much more than a possible itinerary. I lacked the will to walk it or any desire to greet my Lover on the other side.

For the past several years, life has been engendered in me in rooms of recovery: twelve simple steps. I and my fellows have loved them, hated them, prayed and screamed over them, kicked against their goads, rested our faces against their cool calculus. At times we have left program thinking, there must be another way to sobriety. Many of us have come back to the rooms for the only answer that seemed to both promise and fulfill. We found that the words had insinuated themselves into our flesh: “I can’t. God can. I think I’ll let God.” Simple, right? Simple like surrender is simple. Like casting out the demonic.

The insinuate God is pushing into, twisting through, and climbing over all our preferences for death. This is apparently the incarnation God chooses in Christ. Like when I laid eyes on my children for the first time and many other times.  My children crept into me by windings and curvings, then grippings, and then, by God, I was owned and pwned. They insinuated themselves into me. I can barely remember that former man whose corrupt self-focus has now been squeezed nearly to death.  Nearly.

What God seems to be about in the incarnation is not just sharing our life or even emptying himself into human form. For Athanasius, the “Magic” of Christmas is simple. Like exorcism is simple.

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Do You See What I See? A Sermon for Advent 3, Year A – by SPP

Matthew 11:2-11
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

In January 2007, the Washington Post decided to try a little social experiment that David Lose drew my attention to in a blog post with an apt title, “Do you see what I see?”[1] The Post stationed a busker, a violinist, in a busy subway station in Washington, DC in January to observe who would stop and listen to this music. [Play video from Post website in background – condensed video here] 1000+ people went by the player that day; most did not stop. A very few, six or seven, did stop, and I think he wound up with about $35 dollars for his hour’s worth of playing. Then there’s a moment of recognition by one of the bystanders. One of the people recognized who he was: “I saw you play at the Library of Congress.” Do you see what she saw?

This was no ordinary violinist. This was Joshua Bell, one of the world’s most highly decorated concert violinists. This was no ordinary violin. He was playing a multi-million dollar Stradivarius, one of the finest instruments ever crafted. Three days earlier he had filled Boston’s Symphony Hall with people paying $100 per seat. The question the Post author and many others since have asked is simple: Have we been trained to recognize beauty outside the contexts we expect to encounter beauty? Or, as Lose put it, “can we recognize great music anywhere outside of a concert hall?”

No one expects Joshua Bell in a Metro station.

This isn’t a very Christmasy text today, is it? No stories about Mary and Joseph; no angels or wise men. Not even a prophecy about special babies. And we do love babies! But, is there ever a message here that can help Christmas become so much more than what we have made of it. In the words of the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Christ plays in ten thousand places, Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his…”[2]

God is at work beyond where we would expect. Certainly beyond John’s expectations! John just isn’t seeing IT in Jesus. Oh sure, John was full of ideas about who the Messiah would be! Remember last week when we heard John tell the repentant people of Jerusalem some things he was dead-set sure about:

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

No, really, John! Don’t mince words. Tell us what you really think! I wonder what John was thinking about four verses later, when Jesus comes to be baptized by him and something other than a fire-breathing dragon comes down from heaven and rests on Jesus. A dove!

But by Chapter 11, John has lost his baptizing license. Apparently, his fiery rhetoric landed him in prison. But even from prison, he’s been following Jesus’ ministry like a super-fan following their football team. And the verdict? Not impressed! And so he sends some reporters to ask the question that every fan asks of the coach during a tough season, “Are thou he that is to come? Or shall we look for another?” Because, Jesus, I’m looking for something that you’re not doing. I don’t want dove-style Messiah! I’m expecting winnowing forks, threshing floors and burning chaff with unquenchable fire! I want to see some explosive energy off of the line of scrimmage.

Jesus answered them,

“Go and tell John what you hear and see:

Do you see what I see?

the blind receive their sight,

the lame walk,

the lepers are cleansed,

the deaf hear,

the dead are raised,

and the poor have good news brought to them.”

Which sounds like John didn’t know all this. But Lose asks, and it got me to thinking, what if he did know? What if John did know all that Jesus was doing, and it still seemed, to John, kind of ordinary, too ordinary to conclude that, yep, this guy is the one; this is the virtuoso; this is the coach for winning season (or the winnowing season that I’d really like to see).

So Jesus’ final answer? “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

“Well, no offense, Jesus,” John might offer, “but I can’t really see it.”

Does anyone but me find some deep comfort in the fact that John the Baptist, the one who was looking for the Messiah like no other, one who baptized him and saw him and touched him, right up close, even John the Baptist was like, “Really?” You know what John needed, I think? John needed a nimbus. You know a nimbus when you see one, though you might not know that THAT is the word for it. A nimbus is that golden disk-looking thing behind the heads of important figures in religious art. [Show an example] It’s sort of the religious equivalent of the Staples easy button. When you’re looking at a landscape of people in religious art, and you’re trying to pick out Jesus or Mary or some saint you just look for the nimbus, or the halo, right? [Point to one] Nimbus! That was easy! If John or his messenger had only been able to see the nimbus!

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John to disciple: “Did you deliver my message? Is he the Messiah?”

Messenger to John: “Oh, yeah! He totally has a nimbus! Now we KNOW he is the The One!”

But that’s not the way it works. Nimbuses won’t arrive to Christian art for a few centuries actually. A nimbus or a halo isn’t a supernatural thing that actually surrounds holy people or God experiences. A nimbus doesn’t occur on people in nature. A nimbus is what we put on ordinary people when we experience God at work in them. We artists, when we paint the story of our lives, WE apply the nimbus.

Joshua Bell? No one recognized it. No one could see it. But then after someone showed it to me? Bing! It was as if I could see the nimbus! A saint of a player outside his usual concert confines.

But somehow along the way the church has trained us to see holy people and holy things in just about one and only one place: The church. Our temples, our holy Jerusalems, are kind of another easy button. We look for God in the Jerusalems of our lives, in our stained-glass capitals. The evidence of the Messiah, of God, is so much easier to find in the grand temple where we have placed halos around everything and set them in a shrine made of brick and mortar. This is the place of our Messiah, our holy of holies. We retreat here every so often from a world that we often think is Messiah-less and that offers little evidence of God’s presence much less God’s actions, a world where it seems no dead are raised and the poor are ever with us.

Frankly, I would like to see a little more fire, please God. I need some nimbuses in my line of sight, in my 21st century landscape. I’d like to see God at work in some places other than the ones where I am supposed to God, wouldn’t you? Even more frankly, I need to. Someone here today spent some time in an MRI tube this week and heard that infernal banging that it makes, longing for that knocking to come from God’s firm fist as if to say, “Here I am and I am at work, healing what is lame.” I wonder whether someone here, when you got to work this week, opened that note your spouse left in your planner, expecting a healing word after that big fight. But there it is, their handwriting in black and white, “divorce.” Is there one who is to come, to come for me? You have every right to ask. Is there one, God, someone who will be more than simply present for me? Someone who is healing wounds. Someone who is bringing good news. Someone out here in the real world, where the glass is all too clear, and God is simply unexpected.

Sure seems hard for John to believe and for us, too. But God is at work in the places you least expect. The Messiah did not first come to Jerusalem (where everyone would have expected a king to be born), but to Bethlehem, a peasant village out in the work-a-day world. We would be exercising common vision to look at any child born in such a place and say, “Really? I mean, no offense or anything, but are you the one we are looking for, or shall we look for another?” God’s prophet didn’t appear in a soft camelhair sportcoat and a Windsor knot. John wore a hairshirt and Carhartts and you could find him down on that creek in the woods. “What did you go out there to see,” said Jesus, “A fine preacher in soft robes who leans this way and that, pushed by the prevailing cultural winds? Jesus could see John for what he was, God’s prophet. Common sense would have viewed Canaanite women as beyond God’s presence and practice. And yet one of them saw Jesus for who he was. And he saw her for who she was. One nimbus looking at another! And she asked for and received God’s work in her family.

When we look in the faces of people that we feed and clothe, that we visit and care for, do we ever, in our right minds, even imagine asking, “Are you the One?” Never would we expect it. And yet Jesus can see them. Jesus can see the nimbus behind every one of their unexpected heads! “Just as surely as you gave grace to one of the least of these hungry or in prison you did it for me.” Really? Are you for real, Jesus?” Once upon a time, we may have exercised excellent judgment to look in the face of the dead man fresh off of a Roman torture device being wrapped in a shroud and say, “Really? The Messiah? I don’t think so.” But now we know that God was there, outside the city, rejected and despised. The centurion who saw him die? He was the first to ask, “Do you see what I see?”

Because we are stewards of these stories, because they give us the marks that we can look for in our own lives, then we can know that God is at work in our places of work; we can know that God is at work between the walls that capture our pained cries and our suffering silences; we know that God is at work in the profane places as well as in the sacred spaces. But the sacred spaces help us to see them, to see the nimbuses behind the heads of the saints in our lives!

So what if instead of training ourselves to find God in church, what if Church was about helping us find God in the rest of our ordinary lives. We have stained glass nimbuses here so that we can see them out there and we can name them with our lips, “God is at work in you. I can see it! Do you see what I see?” We sing in here so that you can hear the faint refrains of God at work when you are eating at Denny’s. We pray in here so that we can know how to pray when we watch the NBC Nightly News. Can you imagine finding God at work at work, at home, when you are shopping, when you are working out? God is at work in the medical suites and corporate offices; God is at work in churches and in subway stations. It may seem hard to believe at times, but what did you go out into the world to see? Just an MRI machine knocking, knocking, knocking? Or was every knock a sign of the Holy at work? Was it just a licensed marriage and family therapist who welcomed you into her office? Who listened and listened and asked the hard question and caught your tears in the bottle of her expertise and sent you forth with a bit more hope that you had 50 minutes before? Was it just that? Or might the face of our Christ be peeking at us through these people and in these places? Do you see what I see?

Yes? Then if you see it, you can name it! You can name God into the office, the grocery, cancer ward. You can name God into your home room, your dorm room, or your assisted living room. With God’s wise insight, that you can gain here in church, you can look into the wild, seemingly untamable places of your life and be confident that God is there as well.

Here is a nimbus. [hold up a large gold charger behind your head] Actually, it’s a charger from my dining table, but it makes a good substitute! I don’t have enough for everyone here today, but we might keep this going for a few weeks. I invite you take a portable nimbus with you today and use it to name God into your workaday world. With God’s help you can see the holy in people and places that you’d never expect. If Jesus can be the Messiah of God, then we can be sure that God waits for us in whatever Bethlehem we have to go to tomorrow morning. There, in that place, you can imagine God both meeting you and using you in your many roles as employee, parent, spouse, friend, citizen, and volunteer, to extend God’s love and blessing to an often faithless world. I invite you, in short, to hear and see God at work outside of the church, but then bring your witness back to the church. Place the nimbus behind people or in situations or places where you see the Holy One at work and then take a digital picture of it. Please send the pics to me at preacher1120@gmail.com or tweet them with the hashtag #doyouseewhatIsee along with a description of your insight. If you will permit us, we will share the photos on our website and in worship over the coming weeks. Please bring the charger back next week to share with another!

I look forward to seeing you discover that which is holy in the midst of the places that you once thought profane. God is at work in the places we least expect.

For “Christ plays in 10,000 places, lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his.”

God has made it possible for us to sidle up next to a faithless world and ask,

Do you see what I see?

Look at the subway musician: Do you see what I see?

Look at the senior vice-president of operations! Do you see what I see?

Look at the IV bag. Look at the therapist. Look at these friends.

Look at you!

Do you see what I see?

 


[1] David J. Lose, “Do You See What I See?,” Dear Working Preacher, December 5, 2010, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=1567.

[2] from the poem “As kingfishers catch fire…” in G.M. Hopkins, Selected Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. B. Blaisdell, Dover Thrift Editions (Dover Publications, 2013), 46.

A Greeting for Advent 3A

(Based on Matthew 11:2-11, by SPP)

What did we go out into the wilderness to see?

A reed shaken by the wind?

      What did we go out into the wilderness to see?

      A royal figure in soft robes?

What did we go out to see?

A prophet? Yes, and more than that!

People of God, when you look at John, what do you see?

     Gospel preacher, when YOU look at Jesus, what do you see?

 

*an earlier version totally fouled up the biblical text. #fixedit

Thankful for THOSE People

a sermon by Sam Persons Parkes, delivered at the annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, Dothan, AL, Temple Emanu-El, November 22, 2016

A reading from the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 17, beginning at the 11th verse:

11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”


Your faith has made you well.

YOUR faith, said Jesus.

Not my faith, my JEWISH faith,

but YOUR faith.

Not your CHRISTIAN faith,

(heaven knows, there ain’t a single Christian in this story.)

But YOUR faith?

Whose faith?

YOUR faith.

Your SAMARITAN faith

You know, THOSE people.  The Samaritans.

A distinct religious community in Northern Palestine, formed after those tribes of the Northern nation of Israel were plundered by Assyria 800 years or so before Jesus walked by.  Their conquerors resettled many of them elsewhere and brought in others, outsiders who intermingled with them, making them a kind of half-breed, impure people.  THOSE people. (However, genetic testing of modern Samaritan populations reveals that they have much greater genetic affinity with Jews than anyone else. Which suggests that they were probably just as “pure” as anyone else! But, it’s hard to make those people into THOSE people if they are a lot like OUR people.  I wonder if, like us, folks back then, lack genetic distance from an unwanted group could push people away rhetorically…perhaps even defining them as somehow subhuman, just as Jews and Muslims and just about all of THOSE people have been made so by Christian rhetoric at some point during the last 19 centuries.

Perhaps you have seen the video produced by the Atlantic Magazine of Alt-Right leader Richard Spencer leading a recent white nationalist rally? Hideous stuff. I found that the most chilling comments in his speech were reserved for his media critics in using the term lügenpresse, a German word Nazis used for their media critics: “One wonders if these people are people at all, or instead soulless golem,” Spencer said, referring to the clay figure of Jewish folklore brought to life by rabbis in to protect the Jews.[1]

Oh, my friends, with enough rhetoric and self-centeredness we can push anyone away as genetic aberrations or morally deficient or religiously misguided. The wrong blood, the wrong life, the wrong God.  THOSE people. The ones who eat the strange foods and worship on the wrong days.  The ones who wear odd garments and read funky scriptures written with mysterious squiggles and dots.  THOSE people.

THOSE Samaritans, from the Hebrew word samerim meaning guardians/keepers/watchers, were guarding the law, the torah.  THEY had the right scripture, the right place of worship.  Their version of the Pentateuch was better than the Judean version! Religious leaders on both THE Judean and Samaritan sides prohibited contact with THOSE people.  Pushing them away, neither side could enter the territory of the other. Even speaking with them was a deep violation. Pushing back, enforcing boundaries with demonizing rhetoric until these people become THOSE people. And we become OUR people.

I believe that the Divine intentionally haunts the border between US and THEM, and for us to get close to the Divine draws us closer to each other, inviting us to encounter one another.

What I love about this gospel story is that the divine is drawing us close enough to the boundary between OUR people and THOSE people to really SEE each other.  I believe that the Divine intentionally haunts the border between US and THEM, and for us to get close to the Divine draws us closer to each other, inviting us to encounter one another. Jesus enters the village; ten people approach and ask for mercy and it says that Jesus SAW them. The biblical tradition reveals that this is not always the case with Jesus.  Please see the language about “this foreigner” later in the passage! At least once, he rebuked a Syro-phoenician woman who begged for mercy for her child.  Jesus called her and her people dogs not fit to eat the children’s food.  Even Jesus could see folk as THOSE people.  But she kept on until she got what she wanted from the Divine. In the face of sickness and her mother-love, she was not willing to let these silly boundaries between us and them work that way.

I find two forces at work in this passage bringing people together across the boundaries between us and them.  Perhaps no force is more capable of unmasking many of these boundaries as irrelevant and even silly than experiences of disastrous misfortune.  Sickness can destroy silly boundaries.  Just go to a Relay for Life event and try to sign up at the Protestant Tent or the Buddhist Tent. There’s only one tent, for cancer survivors and those who love them and those who love the ones who didn’t survive.

Our faithful Samaritan was one in a colony of Jewish lepers whose only qualification for admittance was having contracted one of the terrible skin conditions that fell under that cover term of leprosy.  In some forms, the nerve endings in the skin would die particularly in the extremities leaving injuries unfelt and wounds untreated.  People would lose digits and limbs.  The disease was contagious, and Jews and Samaritans alike threw the leprous into yet another subset of THOSE people.  People with leprosy would be cut off from family and friends, from the life-sustaining practice of their faith.  At some point, the religious distinctions become irrelevant when you need to eat or change the dressing on a wound or experience loving conversation after experiencing isolation. For our Samaritan, leprosy had made THOSE people into HIS people.

Interestingly, Jesus does not perform a ritual of any sort.  He just gives them a religious instruction. (Apparently all lepers look alike to Jesus.) Go show yourselves to the priest, the JEWISH priest! And as they started walking just the Jews were healed as evidence of their faith in Yahweh, right? NO!  The Samaritan, too, experiences healing.  I will always wonder how far the Samaritan got before he stopped and said, “Why am I going to a priest? I ain’t Jewish!”

So instead he turns back.  He turns back to the borderlands. If the first force bringing people together is shared experiences of disastrous misfortune, the Samaritan also reveals the second force: expressing gratitude.

I’d say that ratio is about right for me.  I’d say about 90% of the time when I experience some kind of blessing, I just say Thank ya! out to the universe and move on in life, rarely allowing the gratitude to really soak in. But every now and then I stop and I turn back and fall before the Divine and offer my own Alhamdulillah. My own Namaste, the God in me sees the God in you. My own Hallelujah!

I’ve been doing that a lot lately, because I’ve been having some spiritual experience.  You see, I’m a bonafide member of a community of disastrous misfortune, a spiritual leper colony, the addicted who gather in rooms all over this city seeking mercy and relief from the disease of compulsion.  Oh, my, friends!  Those rooms are full of all kinds of people, all colors of people, all ages, gay people, straight people, cisgendered people and transgendered people, Republicans! and Democrats! For the disease of compulsion shows no distinction.  I have a doctorate in Theology from one of the most prestigious degree-granting institutions in the world! But, my addiction never asks me one Question about puritan point-form preaching in early America.  Not one time has my addiction listened to me talk about my Christology and said, Tell me more! He don’t care.  That addiction tried to take my degree, my dignity, my humanity, my life.  And here I was a religious professional whose portfolio did not include what I needed.  I needed something like exorcism.  I needed spiritual experience.

But one day I heard the Divine call to me from the strangest place, it called to me from inside my own experience of addiction.  And God said what God always says to me when I am so wrapped up in my own self, God says, “Are you done?” Sam, are you finished with you? finished being wrapped up in your own obsessive mind? Are you done? And one day, I said, yes and God said , “Good.  I have some people you need to meet  They are carrying my healing and wholeness for you.”  I said okay.  And then I went into the rooms and walked along the border between all kinds of otherness receiving gift after gift after gift from THOSE people.

I received my life back, but not the old life, but a new life – a new way of living that I share with my fellows bound together by our pursuit for “a proven, workable method whereby we can arrest our illness.”[2]  And bound together by the Divine who is always skirting around the edges of social respectability looking for the losers, the addicts, the drunks, the lepers like me.  I have met God through my unclean, hilarious, deadly serious fellows. I’ve met Jesus in my sponsors who SEE me (meaning they see through my BS) and give me instructions to follow. My sponsors so far have been a dog’s breakfast of funky Others – an agnostic retiree, a gregarious Roman Catholic academic, a government contractor, and my current Jesus is a Mormon housewife who has been so willing to help me struggle with my own Methodist Christian sources to discover a living, fierce God who stops at nothing to set people free from their own personal hells. Did you catch that?  A Mormon woman helped me sort through my own faith tradition to discover God at work? “There you go, Sam,” she would say, “YOUR faith has made you well.”

Perhaps then, this is one of the most radical phrases that Jesus ever uttered: YOUR faith has made you well, which is actually a terrible translation for the Greek phrase better translated, your faith has SAVED you.  Whoa, hold on.  Do you mean Jesus pulled out his pocket New Testament and led him down the Romans Road to pray the sinner’s prayer?  Or did he walk through the catechism with him toward baptism or send him to confirmation class? Nope, the text seems to indicate that he was just as Samaritan upon rising as he was on falling.  And Jesus seems okay with that.  So that must not be the kind of salvation Jesus is talking about here.  He must be talking about the kind of spiritual experience that happens even to us when we show up for one another, even for THOSE people, when we create safe space for each other, when we call each other on our own special brands of BS.  He must be talking about the wholeness that happens when we allow our gratitude to carry us deeper into our own faith without having to diminish the faith of others.

This space tonight, my funky Wiregrass friends, is a weird, marginal space pushed to the cultural edges of our community by the fear and anxiety of otherness.  But we are not afraid.  We know that here on the edges, at the boundary, comes walking the Divine inviting us to see each other, to become curious about each other, to come closer. And the Divine leans over to whisper in our ear, “Are ya done? Are you finished with fear? Are you sick yet of violence? You ARE? Then, I have some of THOSE people I would like you to meet!”


[1] Jessica Taylor, “Energized By Trump’s Win, Alt-Right Extremists Gather In Washington To ‘Change The World’ : NPR,” November 20, 2016, http://www.npr.org/2016/11/20/502719871/energized-by-trumps-win-white-nationalists-gather-to-change-the-world.

[2] “Overeaters Anonymous Mid-Peninsula | Our Invitation to You,” accessed November 26, 2016, http://www.oamidpeninsula.org/about/our-invitation-to-you.htm.

Starting at the Very Beginning Is a Very Important Place to Start

One of the most overlooked parts of the preaching process is also one of the most decisive: how to select a biblical text for preaching. When I say “overlooked” what I mean is that the introductory preaching courses with which I am familiar gave short shrift to text selection. However, few choices are more influential to the actual outcome of the process. When we select a text or texts for preaching, we narrow our focus to a single set of ideas about the relationship between God and humans. Or, in the case of narrative texts, the sermon deals with a specific set of characters and circumstances. We might wind up preaching the whole counsel of God or the broad story of God’s good news in Jesus, but we enter that story at a specific place.

Preachers really have three options for text selection:

  • consulting a weekly lectionary of some sort (some denominations require adherence to their lectionaries);
  • choosing a text freestyle that meets some need or addresses a certain topic; or
  • preaching through a biblical book, lectio continua

A lot of mainline folks will use some blend of the first two. I rarely hear mainliners choosing option three (the “Calvin”). Perhaps some will do this in their Sunday evening services or bible-studies (as I do – but not really for preaching).

Up front and honest, I’ve always been a lectionary guy for the most part. I find the Revised Common Lectionary to be tremendously helpful in a number of ways. I’ll outline these in a subsequent post. However, lectionaries are being frequently discarded by the emergent and entrepreneurial set of preachers.  My experience is that a lot of my colleagues began turning from the lectionary after Adam Hamilton’s Unleashing the Word from 2003.  Hamilton’s tremendous success in building Church of the Resurrection got a lot of us thinking about what topical/series preaching might be capable of.  In fact, the series model seems ascendant to me.

My colleague, the Rev. Dr. Dawn Chesser, director of preaching ministries at Discipleship Ministries in the UMC, recently attended the UMC Young Preachers Festival and Conference in Kansas City. She found little love for the lectionary there. Several of the presenters discouraged lectionary preaching. But, when these 100 or so young people head to preaching classes in UM seminaries or Courses of Study, my guess is that they are going to hear how helpful the lectionary can be in their planning, preparation and disciple-making. What are they to think? Who is right?

Ha. Well, I won’t be answering that question in an either-or fashion. Because I don’t think it’s an either-or question. So, my next three blog posts will attempt to outline pros and cons of both of the first two methods, and then I will conclude this series with some observations. Please know that I consider this a conversation! I hope to have your feedback!

So, let me ask you: Do you find one method more effective personally than another? And why do you think that is?

Please note that I used the word “effective” and not simply “helpful”. I suppose that the quality of this decision at the beginning of the sermon is ultimately determined by our purpose and aim in preaching. Is your method of text selection determined by the outcome that you are hoping for?

Welcome, Beautiful Partners

As it is written, How beautiful are the feet of those who announce the good news. – Romans 10:15b

Hello, hello, hello!  And welcome to the Spark Preaching blog, where I intend to reflect, both as eloquently and plainly as I can, about the craft of Christian proclamation.  I’ve been preaching weekly for the majority of my 25-year tenure as a pastor under appointment in the United Methodist Church.  So, I get how tough and how blessed this task is.  And I truly understand how many partners we need, both in the parish and beyond, to help us do an effective job in our craft.

I use the word “us” quite intentionally.  For me, a sermon is not a manuscript; it isn’t a deposit of some sort of content; a sermon is an event, a happening, a communicative act between a preacher and her people.  So, a sermon is not something that I do, or that one does; a sermon requires both a preacher (in whom the Holy Spirit is at work) and hearers (in whom the Holy Spirit is at work), and, sometimes, the boundaries between whom is listening and whom is hearing blur.  As Dr. Teresa Fry Brown, now Bandy Professor of Preaching at Candler School of Theology, cautioned us in our first intro classes in the M.Div program: “We do not preach TO anyone; we always preach WITH…”

Preaching good news about Jesus Christ is a partnership, a collaboration. I am tremendously grateful for all of the partners that I have had over these decades.  And I am very excited about the prospect of being YOUR partner as you seek to preach with your people. Over the next few blog posts I will share some of my own journey to this place and begin to outline some assumptions that I bring to the pulpit.

Please ask questions! If I can be of help, let me know in the comments or connect with my Facebook page and Twitter feeds.  Let me know how I can be of best service to you, partners.