Wildly, Powerfully Kind
“What shall I bring when I come before YHWH, and bow down before God on high?” you ask. “Am I to come before God with burnt offerings? With year-old calves? Will YHWH be placated by thousands of rams or ten thousand rivers of oil? Should I offer my firstborn for my wrongdoings — the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
Listen here, mortal: God has already made abundantly clear what “good” is, and what YHWH needs from you: simply do justice, love kindness, and humbly walk with your God.
My sermon of October 23, 2022 at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC.
We continue today on our three week exploration of that amazing summation of God’s will for us given by the prophet Micah, to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with our God. Last week we began with doing justice, and as we looked at the scriptural record, the prophetic witness and the teaching of Christ and others, we arrived at the point of defining justice as the upholding of human dignity. Acting and speaking to establish and protect and dignity of all people is how we are a just people in God’s eyes. Today we come to the second of the three admonitions, to love kindness.
When we speak of kindness, does someone in your life come automatically to mind? We know kindness when we see it, it’s compassionate and generous, it builds people up, increasing joy and lessening hurt. If someone says “well, I was actually being kind” we know that’s suspect, don’t we? Kindness doesn’t need an apology and it’s easily recognized because of the fruit it bears in life.
It makes sense that we build our understanding of kindness on the justice we defined last week, the upholding of human dignity. Kindness is justice in action. It comes from a place of seeing the intrinsic value and worth of a person, and acting on it. It’s going to look like courtesy and compassion and it will be evidence of our just view of people. You’ve known kind people; kind people are the folks who practice the welcome and hospitality that the prophets said God expected to see among the people. Kind folks are quick to share, quick to compliment, slow to turn away, slow to judge and more curious than condemning. Many English translations have the word mercy in place of kind, and that works too… the merciful overlook the little things, give the benefit of the doubt, forgive, and lend a hand when they can.
According to the English dictionaries I perused this week, Kindness is the quality of being generous, helpful and caring for other people… the Hebrew for kindness in Micha’s writing is chesed, a love and generosity between people, ultimately modeled on God’s covenantal love. Though it’s never an easy task to fully render an ancient Hebrew word into English today, with all of its nuances, there’s no hidden messaging or major traps here… it’s talking about deliberate, chosen kindness.
We really see this in Jesus, don’t we?
- Jesus saw people’s value and honored it with compassion and time, like with the woman who snuck up to touch his garment in Mark 5 and Jesus stopped to talk with her,
- Jesus saw people’s potential and invested in it, like when he saw short-statured Zacchaeus up in a tree top in Luke 19 and didn’t laugh, but said, “I’m coming to your house!”,
- Jesus saw people confused and in need and didn’t judge them for it, like the crowds who were directionless as sheep without a shepherd at the end of Matthew 9,
- Jesus saw people in all their human complexity and refused to discard them, as when someone caught in adultery in John 8 was dragged before him and he chose not to judge, but to rescue.
Kindness changes lives for the better! Kindness creates possibilities and opens opportunities.
You know the familiar passage from St. Paul… “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.” Galatians 5:22-25
Kindness is the fruit we bear in our lives which plants seeds in other lives. You know that’s the difference between fruits and vegetables, right? In general, fruits have seeds in them while vegetables don’t. Besides a few troublemakers like tomatoes, the rule generally holds. Kindness is a way of life that can be contagious and can multiply.
Things like kindness, the fruit born in our lives by the work and presence of the Spirit, can be powerful in reach and implication. I spent some time this week looking back at a powerful chain of kindness in action which is still blessing people today. Perhaps you know the story of Father Trevor Huddlestone an Anglican Priest in South Africa who bitterly opposed Apartheid. He would doff his hat in respect to a young Desmond Tutu’s mother, and because of his example of kindness Desmond decides he must follow the same path into the priesthood. The story of Fr. Huddlestone’s kindness varies slightly from source to source, but his kindness paves the way for an Archbishop Tutu to become the force he was against Apartheid, fighting for the dignity of all people, leading in reconciliation, and especially being outspoken in upholding the dignity of LGBTQ folks. His example and life continue to bless us, today.
Kindness is not meek and mild. Kindness is powerful, active and challenging for our world!
Exploring the call to love kindness from Micah, we might ask ourselves:
- What fruit of kindness am I cultivating in my life with intention?
- Who has been compassionate, generous and caring for me, and how can I pass that along?
- Who is in need of my compassion, generosity and care?
- What might be getting in the way of my kindness? What am I loving instead?
- Earlier and later in Galatians 5 St. Paul does give a list of things that get in the way… self-indulgence, biting and devouring each other, sexual immorality, impurity, idolatry, sorcery, fights, strife, jealousy, anger, argument, divisions, choosing sides against each other, envy, drunkenness, conceit and competition. I’m not sure about you, but sorcery isn’t a struggle for me… but anger? Envy? Being argumentative? Being selfish? Yeah, there are things in my own heart which would fight against kindness.
Too often, it seems, that kindness is the first thing to be sacrificed on the altar of our political, economic, social or religious competitions. Kindness is left behind in the dust cloud of our angers, divisions and biting at one another.
Kindness is a choice, like choosing justice. It’s a calling; it’s the way we live. It’s who we were meant to be. Remember when St. Paul told the church in Ephesus in the middle of Ephesians 2, “we’re made for this, made for goodness, made to be doing good.” (That was my paraphrase!) We just have to move over all the other stuff that has gotten in the way, and then follow God on the world changing path of kindness. May God’s Spirit give us the wisdom, courage and opportunity to be wildly kind!
Be blessed, Rev. Todd
The Lessons of Howard Jones
Howard Jones has been singing to me for years upon years, and his lessons are still as golden now as when I was a teenager. I’m feeling grateful for Jones today, and I’d like to review some of the best things he has been preaching to us through the years. Some of the things are obvious and built right into the song titles, and some come back again and again through his lyrics…
Don’t get in a rush, it won’t help. Life In One Day
Don’t always look at the negatives. Don’t Always Look at The Rain
Chill, it’s not just you. No One Is To Blame
There are some things we all must learn for ourselves. Look Mama
Hold on. Things Can Only Get Better
We’re all unique and awesome, so be your authentic self and accept others in their realities. Like To Get To Know You Well, Conditioning & Equality
Wait for an exciting, fun & valuing love. You’re worth it. An Everlasting Love
You’re good. Believe it. Specialty
Open your mind and enjoy the ride. New Song
There’s so much more; keep exploring! Hide And Seek, Hunt The Self & Always Asking Questions
Enough with the hate. We’re all one. Elegy
But Jones is not all pop sugar and happy feelings. We hear him lamenting loneliness (City Song) and all of our unfulfilled hopes and dreams (Hunger For The Flesh). We hear his pain and struggle to understand his own thoughts and the desire that we would hear his lessons before we’ve lost too much (Assault and Battery, The Prisoner, Last Supper, What Is Love, Human’s Lib, Pearl and The Shell & Exodus). All this is what I’ve heard from Jones, and might be incredibly far from what he intends with his music, but I am grateful. These are the lessons he has instilled in me, and he’ll always be one of my favorite teachers. I’m better for having his music in my life.
It was such an amazing thing to hear him live in concert in 2015, a full 30 years after I first began my journey with his music. Jones has always been so real to me, though never even an acquaintance, and it’s been a blast to grow old together. He’s hopeful, hurting, healing and seemingly unstoppable. Amazingly, he sounds as good today as when I first popped that Dream Into Action cassette into a player in 1985. I truly hope he lives forever.
With gratitude, Todd
Choosing Wholeness – Sermon Transcript
It was a deep blessing to be invited back to Church in Bethesda this past Sunday morning to bring a message during worship. I’m dropping the transcript of the sermon, below. I share this realizing that choosing wholeness and achieving wholeness are often two very different things, but I do believe we begin with the choice. Cheers!
Our text is Matthew 6:26-34 from The Inclusive Bible:
26 “Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet our God in heaven feeds them. Aren’t you more important than they?
27 Which of you by worrying can add a moment to your lifespan? 28 And why be anxious about clothing? Learn a lesson from the way the wildflowers grow. They don’t work; they don’t spin. 29 Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in full splendor was arrayed like one of these.
30 If God can clothe in such splendor the grasses of the field, which bloom today and are thrown on the fire tomorrow, won’t God do so much more for you—you who have so little faith? 31 “Stop worrying, then, over questions such as, ‘What are we to eat,’ or ‘what are we to drink,’ or ‘what are we to wear?’ 32 Those without faith are always running after these things. God knows everything you need. 33 Seek first God’s reign, and God’s justice, and all these things will be given to you besides.
34 Enough of worrying about tomorrow! Let tomorrow take care of itself. Today has troubles enough of its own.
Good morning, everyone. I come to you in the name of the God who dresses wildflowers in their bold colors and striking style, who sees each individual in the vast clouds of birds which crisscross our skies, and who sends us to seek and make justice in our world. Let us pray…
“Saving God, may we seek you and your justice, trust you deeply and move into this world as your agents of peace, and kindness, trendsetting only when showing the great glory of your mercy and grace. May the words of our mouths and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.”
It was an interesting experience to put our passage from Matthew 6 out on Facebook this week as our text for today, and immediately hear from multiple people something like, “Oh that’s my favorite text!” The longer I live, the more I fall in love with our diversity as human beings and people of faith. I did not choose the text for today because it’s one of my favorites, in fact, I chose it because it holds a message with which I struggle. An opportunity to speak to you is a chance, perhaps selfishly, for me to dig into a passage and grow.
You see, I’m good at worrying, it’s always been one of my special gifts. I’m not only kinda good at worrying, I’m also good to planning what I’m going to wear and especially what I’d like to eat. Just to illuminate that: When we lived Africa we had a professor from our seminary come and visit us, and I was so excited for us take him out and show him some the places where we were planting churches. As we drove through the rural areas I would often point to places along the road and say, “That’s a nice place to stop on the way home for some beans and rice. Oh, sometimes I like to stop over there because they have really good chicken. Sometimes I’ll go down here to the edge lake because companies bring ice to pack the day’s catch of fish in, and they use the ice to have cold Cokes!” He finally laughs and asks me, “Todd, are all your landmarks in life places to eat?” Yeah. They kinda were. Anyone with me on that way of mapping life?
I’m also paradoxically really good at procrastinating, even though my whole life I’ve tried not to procrastinate as much. Anyone else good at putting things off and feeling bad while doing it? Anyone else with me in wishing they didn’t put things off as much as we do? I’m a conflicted guy sometimes, making all these great plans and worrying, just to put off following the plans.
And in one little passage Jesus comes in and threatens my whole house of cards, to topple both my comfortable worrying and my comfortable guilt over procrastination: he says, “Don’t worry about anything, just put it off until tomorrow.”
What? Am I to really do that? Doesn’t Jesus know we’ve invented some of our own proverbs over the years, proverbs about doing. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” Anyone ever try to find that one in scripture? It’s not there, but it does very aptly capture one of our societal and religious preoccupations, huh? And more to the point, we have often quoted and canonized a “verse” that’s not even in scripture: “God helps those who help themselves.” That is exactly opposite of what Jesus just said!
I remember hearing this passage as a young Christian and being mortified… Jesus just told me to goof off. Every other teacher I’ve ever had has told me the opposite. Because at a glance, in English, this looks to be a debate about goofing off, when it really it’s more a text about wholeness.
The Greek word for anxious here is merimnaó, “a piece instead of a whole.” Jesus says not to let ourselves get pulled to pieces by life, taken apart by cares and concerns over small stuff, but as whole people seek the greatest things, and remain whole people by focusing on the greatest things: God’s reign, God’s justice. Hear the passage again, but paraphrased a bit with this drive for wholeness woven into the text…
Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t work like we do to buy the stuff we buy, yet God’s birds have all they need. Aren’t you smarter than birds, who just go be the birds they were made to be without worrying if they’re bird enough? Which of you by falling apart over the small stuff can add a moment of meaning to your life? Why lose your bearings in life over clothing and fashion? Really? Learn a lesson from the way the wildest flowers of the field grow. They don’t work. They don’t shop. Yet not even King Solomon in his fullest splendor was as amazing a sight as one of these delicate marvels. In God’s world outward adornment is casually lavished on the unplanned growth of the fields, which measure so small against your value – you have been made even more wonderfully. You don’t need a bunch of other adornment to be the beautiful creation God intended you to be.
So, decide today that you’re not going to keep falling apart and losing yourself in addictions to food and fashion. You are so much more those things, made to be so much more. Anyone can dress, and anyone can eat, and everyone does. God knows you. God loves you. So, live to see God’s glorious peace in this world, first in your own life and then multiplied around you. Live to see God’s justice made real in this world, first in you, and then multiplying in the world around you. Enough falling apart over the junk that doesn’t really make us happy or fulfilled… that stuff steals from us our today and promises us a false tomorrow! There’s enough need for justice today to keep us busy. Tomorrow will present opportunities for action and justice all its own.
Folks, I’m still going to do my laundry. Jesus wasn’t saying I have permission to stop doing my chores. I’m still going to eat, and Asian foods like Phó and Bulgogi will still be some of my most favorites. I plan to eat them some more. But I’m also going to hold extra tight to the truth that no matter how well I dress, someone, honestly a bunch of someones, will be dressed better. No matter how well I wear my clothes, there’s always some who will wear them better. And no matter what I eat, my favorite foods or not, it is still fuel for the meaning, it is the energy for what matters: God’s will and God’s reign in me and God’s justice for those who most need it.
May we never lose sight, that after the food is done, the clothes have faded, and all that we thought was so important has vanished from memory like last year’s whithered flowers, God’s justice and the hope that God’s justice engenders in us and the world, that is our tomorrow.
It’s no wonder that this passage drops into it’s context as it does, caught between the discussions of heavenly treasures and not judging. This passage is a natural extension of putting our focus on heavenly values, the things worth treasuring, and it’s a perfect prelude to a warning about judging people around us or succumbing to that judgement.
Wholeness is the opposite of judgment. Wholeness is a refutation of life lived as critical competitors focused on the flaws of others. Wholeness is freeing for us and the world around us.
No, Jesus isn’t writing us a life-long hall pass to skip class and goof off from our responsibilities. Jesus is reminding us that God is involved here, and even if the clothes fade and the flowers whither, there is justice, there is peace, and there is life infused with meaning, the kind of meaning that lasts.
So, fly. The God of the Birds has also given you wings. And smile. Enrich this world, for the God of Flowers has also made you beautiful and amazing. This is our gospel, our Good News. Amen.
Thanks, everyone at CiB, for a blessed morning together!
Here’s a link to CIB’s post about our visit with a few more pictures: https://www.churchinbethesda.com/single-post/2017/07/06/Thank-you-Todd-and-Teresa-Thomas
I Get To Sermonize Some!
I got a welcome email from our pastor, Rev. Sari, with some dates for me to do some guest preaching at St. John’s in Bethesda/Chevy Chase! Here are the dates and service times of my up-coming opportunities…
January 22 at 5pm
March 5 at 5pm
April 2 at 8am, 11:15am and 5pm
It’s exciting that two of the dates are in the Lenten Season, a deep and reflective time of every year. My thinking right now is to engage the Gospel passages on each of these Sundays as listed in the lectionary. (Links to the passages for each Sunday are inserted above with their dates.)
St. John’s is always a safe place for everyone. The inclusive and welcoming spirit there is one of the reasons we were able to make the congregation our home. You’re always welcome to visit for services, and of course, it would be pure joy to see you drop in when I’m given the privilege to share a message. Questions? Drop me a note with the form supplied below.
A Shepherd Without Sheep
I’m taking some time this week to reflect and pray about the move I took a few months ago, following the decision Teresa and I made together almost a year ago, to leave my position as Pastor of Church in Bethesda, our spiritual friends and family for eight and a half years. (And so you know, this post will be longer than 500 words, my latest exercise to practice brevity and be more concise.)
It wasn’t an easy decision to leave Church in Bethesda and I’ve written some things about my entrance into the Episcopal Church, one the strongest factors that led to my resignation. And for the first time in a long time, I’m back in the role of being a member of a congregation without any leadership or teaching responsibilities.
Yes, I’m pursuing ministry options within the Episcopal Church, and I hope to serve our new Church family. I’ll even go ahead and say that I hope and pray that I am able to serve the Episcopal Church and our world as an Episcopal Priest, but it’s all up in the air for a while longer. For now I find myself outside of a role that I have served in for a long time, one I am realizing that I have internalized and made who I am as much as what I do: Shepherd.
As a Pastor, a Shepherd, my role was to come along side other members of our community and dig into scripture, experience life’s best and worst, and to faithfully make sense of it all together. I prayed for and with others. I served others and with others. I weekly spoke and wrote about scripture, God and faith. I creatively pursued ways within community to faithfully hear and follow God’s Spirit and footprints across our dusty globe. I painted. I played my djembe. I solemnized weddings and I officiated funerals.
Talking of shepherds and sheep might sound a bit off-putting to you, as if we’re talking about being a leader with a bunch of followers. The reality is that a good shepherd is as often following the sheep as leading them. (I often saw this when we lived in East Africa.) A good shepherd is serving the sheep and working to meet their needs more often than the sheep might be serving the the needs of the shepherd. Of course, we’ve all known an egotistical church shepherd who wields a wicked stick, but that is not an image of a scriptural pastor nor the example of the Good Shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ.
These most recent reflections are not necessarily about the people we left behind at Church in Bethesda, good people we miss and love dearly. I’m not really writing about them, but about life after them. I’ve become a shepherd without any sheep. I don’t have a group of people for whom I have committed to follow, lead and serve as pastor and shepherd. We do have a congregation, and it’s filled with wonderful folks. I’ve been able to preach a few times on Sunday nights, and Teresa and I have been asked to teach a teen class on Sunday mornings in the Fall. But these are more in the doing part of me as shepherd than the being part.
That being part is what I’m missing. It’s the prayerfully dreaming and the vision casting of ways to enact our faith, within our community and in the world. It’s the circle of deep care around a group of people in which I share and breathe. It’s making art for them and making art together, and the prayerful preparation before the making of that art. One thing that is really getting to me is having messages well up inside of me, and no venue to share. It’s having dreams and images in my heart and no canvas on which to begin making them reality. It’s the realization that it’s much more difficult to be patient in this liminal space than I expected.
My reflections are multifaceted, but I wanted to capture a few ideas while they are still crystallizing in my mind.
1) I’m still feeling very blessed and happy in the Episcopal Church. Our experience at St. John’s Episcopal Church has been wonderful and we’re happy to be there. And my recent joy at Missional Voices is still fresh. We have a beautiful, diverse faith family in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, and I’m happy it’s our home.
2) I need to take my impatience and feelings of loss and channel them into prayer and devotion. The thing about liminal spaces is that with growing anxiety and impatience, depression and hopelessness are too often the natural course. It’s all too easy to lose touch with faith and forms, practices that instill hope and reinforce conviction. Choices must often be made and remade as life’s journey moves into new territory.
3) I need a community in which I am a sheep and a shepherd, wherein I lead and follow and grow and share with some other souls. This is probably going to be alongside our membership and participation at St. John’s, but never instead of St. John’s. I shouldn’t be just waiting for what is coming next in my religious life and vocation; it’s a good time to start dreaming and realizing what comes next.
As promised, I doubled the usual length of a blog post… sorry about that, guys. But if one of these three reflections sounds like something you’d like to explore with me, then let’s get coffee and talk. Let’s get together and talk about faith without judgment, diversity without anger, peace without war and love for our enemies… lots of good Jesus stuff. God is good. God is good all the time.
On Preachers Who Incite Violence
Here are some of my thoughts on the seeming trend with preachers down in North Carolina who have turned to inciting violence to effect change in people. Have you followed the recent hermeneutical gaffs coming from North Carolina? Here’s the lineup: Mr. Worley & Mr. Harris. They have incited a violent reaction toward male children not acting macho enough and even dreamed of fencing off gay people to ensure their extinction. (Wait, did Worley unintentionally admit that he understands homosexuality as genetic and not preference with the fence idea? And gay people are only born from other gay people? Confusing.) This whole thing of preachers inciting violence on the basis of their personal beliefs is extremely problematic from a Christian standpoint, and so weirdly American.
Let’s chat about why it’s so oddly American. Does anyone catch how ironic it is that Mr. Worley is constitutionally protected to freely speak his beliefs even while he asserts the idea that a group of people might be forcibly and illegally interned behind fences, which won’t happen precisely because of their constitutional rights? As he lays out his grand idea for how he’d like to deal with gay people one has to wonder if he’s cognizant of the fact that he’s wasting everyone’s time on an idea that will not ever come to fruition. I’m guessing not. People are free to speak, even their dumbest beliefs and ideas, and even when their dumbest ideas and beliefs can’t become a reality because of the same constitution giving them their speech rights. This is a true American Drama.
But there’s a dark side to the humor of how silly these preachers sound. We can laugh that this pastor is wasting his time and the time of his congregation by expounding on ideas that cannot happen and therefore are not worth consideration, and yet we all know that as a nation we carry a guilty conscience. Did anyone immediately think of the forced interning of Japanese Americans during World War II? I did, and that’s why this drama has such a dark side. Did you think about the forced chemical castrations we have committed against citizens in the past when identified as homosexuals? I did, and these kinds of national memories scare me. We Americans as a mob/nation can be so fearful as to act outside of our constitutional values. We did it before. Might we do it again? And does this man really want that on his conscience?
And then there’s the case of the other preacher, Mr. Harris. He actually had the temerity to encourage physical violence against one’s child. He crossed the line in advocating violence. He wrapped up his own personal ideas of masculinity and what he perceives as an acceptable male role, disguised them as scriptural expectations, and called on fathers to enforce them with violence. “Walk over there and crack that wrist. Give him a good punch.” Yes. He did. But wait… what could be more Americana than the strapping sawmill father who rules the roost with an iron fist and fast flying leather belt? What could be more Americana than depressed, guilt-ridden fathers who are made to feel that they have failed in their one great cosmic duty (to raise heterosexual sons and subdue wives), and so turn to their only two possible balms: booze and beating said sons and wives. It’s sad, but so American it hurts.
Problematic for a Christian, Much Less a Preacher
This is all very problematic for a Christian, especially a Christian Pastor. One simply cannot find Jesus making sexuality a keystone of proclaiming the Kingdom, and therefore these preachers must realize when they are “leaving the map.” In the most memorable cases of when Jesus might have made sexuality an issue (in the cases of two women, one at a well and one about to be stoned… John 4 & John 8), he did not. Indeed, human sexuality is a complex and very present topic throughout our scriptures, and therefore does enter into sermons, but a preacher must ask himself or herself why they have made it a keystone salvation issue and Christian identity issue when Jesus didn’t. And even when sex and sexuality is a needed conversation from the pulpit, where does this sense of entitlement to meanness and inciting violence come from? Not the Bible. Encouraging fathers to physical violence in the name of Christ is simply despicable. Enjoying fantasies of fencing off the people you don’t like and denying them dignity and joyful existence is sick. This sounds a lot less like preachers fretting over a culture war and more like terrorists plotting their next move.
Hey, I’m a preacher. Can I just say that I get how intoxicating it is to feel an audience vibe? Can I admit that it’s so very tempting to say things that will get an amen, a nod, a smile, an affirmation that I’m ok? I know how Mr. Worley and Mr. Harris both felt that morning. They were on top of the world! They were feeling great. Did it bother them that their personal elevation was effected at the cost of encouraging violence toward children or fantasies of forcibly interning American citizens? It seems not. Did it bother them that they were garnering feelings of affirmation for themselves by inciting feeling of disenfranchisement for others? I guess not. Once you start to get the buzz, the bar tab gets a bit hazy and you just keep ordering drinks without worrying about the cost. These guys might be good teetotalling Baptists who never touch a bottle, but they obviously like the buzz. Preachers need to renounce the buzz. And the next time a preacher says something so amazingly dumb and a friend asks, “Is that dude high?” you can answer, “Yeah, he totally is.”
And to set the record straight, at least from my view of scripture and the role of a pastor, and the message of Jesus Christ: These pastors are definitely not just “defending the Bible”. These pastors are not simply defending their beliefs or taking courageous stands, as cornered supporters like to say. Though constitutionally free and able to make those statements and hold those beliefs, they are not defending a Christian message when advocating physical violence to change a child’s character, identity or sexuality. They are not defending the biblical message of Christ when advocating the forced incarceration of U.S. Citizens based upon their sexuality, even if the pastor is so kind as to suggest dropping food behind the fence for them. If they want to defend the Bible, or in actually have the Bible defend them, then let them take their stand on a beautiful line from St. Paul, “Let your gentleness be evident to all.” (Philippians 4:5) Because you simply don’t fence your neighbor off from life and liberty or crack your son’s wrist with gentleness. Those actions require violence. Those actions are not biblically defensible, nor can they be invoked in defense of biblical things.
Jesus Has Left the Building
I believe that when these preachers go off into their dreams of violence that Jesus catches the bus to the mall. He has left the building. The Jesus who sat in the midst of dropped stones will not be standing up there with the preacher waving his stone from the pulpit. As American as free speech might be, this is not at all Christian when “Christian” means “identifiable with the life, message and meaning of Christ.” When these guys sober up, I hope they get it right.
Some Thoughts on Preaching, Part One
Several conversations this past year have had me thinking about writing something about the practice of preaching. I’ve sat with several folks from my church family and responded to questions about my preaching style and habits, and I suppose that what I want to do here is share some of that with you. This is part one of that effort.
Why share thus stuff?
Am I tooting my own horn or flexing my pretentious muscles? I really hope not. But, I think it’s important to talk about things from individual perspectives and experiences. When we do that we find out that we’re not nearly as unique or alone as we tend to think. So, I guess I’m trolling for kindred spirits as I do this, friends trying to make a similar path. I wasn’t trained to preach as I do, so it’s been an odd journey for me to do different things and attempt new methods. Sometimes it has soared with eagles and other times hidden in the mud with worms, but I find that experience far more authentic and life-like than the many idealized preachers of my youth who became more and more distanced from us and God because of a rigid preaching practice until they fell into the worst sins against which they weekly railed. As is probably the case for most church leaders, I am deeply concerned with the lives and souls of the people who look to me for leadership, but I’m also hoping to live the life eternal now and always for myself.
Here are a few things I don’t tend to do…
I don’t ever read a prepared sermon.
If you are trained to do this, and you enjoy it, and you minister with a church family that appreciates it, don’t change a thing! I found that I could not engage my listeners when I engaged the paper. My experience has been that younger generations, unless trained otherwise by seminary or church experience, tend not to respond positively to the sermons being read to them. I think it has to do with the way the younger gens interpret and recognize a couple of crucial things: authenticity and relationship.
Did I just say that written sermons aren’t sincere and authentic? Nope. I said that I’ve found the younger gens, and many from the older ones, are finding a prepared and read sermon to feel less engaging, and therefore not seeming authentic to the life of the speaker. That’s my experience when trying to encode messages for my listeners… and it resonates with me as well.
The idea of relationship is probably even more important and really impacts the idea of a speaker’s authenticity. Younger gens are way more relational these days, and they often hear you or don’t hear you based on their relationship or perceived relationship to you. I believe that to be a fairly true generalization. Many younger folks just aren’t looking for the “power” image in preachers, but instead want someone who can relate to and connect with them at empathetic levels.
Of course the kingdom still has plenty of room it seems for the styled hair, capped teeth and prosperity models who build some of our mega-churches. Cool. That’s no skin of my bald head, not so pristine teeth and jeans. I don’t go into Sunday mornings looking like a slob, nor a poster child, but just me. I’ve found the effort worth the dividends of trust and grace that my church family folks are willing to extend to me.
I don’t like to draw a closed circuit of conclusions.
I don’t think that what I have to say should ever be the final word on something, or that my conclusions are the necessary conclusions for each of my listeners. What? But aren’t preachers paid to think for us, study for us and tell us what the coolest theological trends might be for the day? Aren’t we actually saved by our rightness regardless of our lip service to grace and faith?
I don’t try to complete some of the ideas I’m preaching because I intend for them to be germinal in my listeners. My applications tend to be exploratory. I genuinely invite folks to chew on what I’m saying and give me alternative conclusions or ideas. I’ve been broadened many times by my church folks coming to me with alternatives and additions to what I’m talking about, and I often include those points or reference their thoughts on a following Sunday. The classical form of a sermon that has an introduction, three points and a conclusion is more of “take it or leave it” situation than one in which a person in invited to grow and take their time. Simply put, I don’t expect my listeners to accept everything I say in a message at face value or in the moment of hearing my words… I’ve had a while to play with my ideas and conclusions, digest them and throw them through some tests before any given Sunday morning. It would be un-neighborly not to allow my listeners some time to digest and incorporate the ideas, and improve on them in the effort.
Humility seems to call for a bit of openness and invitation to many of a preacher’s conclusions. After all, I am one person, and God’s Spirit lives in the many persons surrounding me. If I have faith that God’s Spirit is a present, convicting agent in peoples’ lives, then I carry no less of a burden as preacher, but a little different of a burden, one shared with my church folks, not imposed on them.
At the risk of making any comparison between myself and Jesus, which would be a huge mistake for me, I’d ask you to consider how many times Jesus threw some teaching out and then walked off leaving people scratching their heads, frustrated or confused, but also processing and deeply involved in what he had said, though maybe not what he concluded.
I try not to move in a linear fashion through points A to D, 1 to 5, etc.
Mostly, linear communication leads to two great evils: 1) alliteration, and 2) lazy listening. I’m doing my part to kill both practices in the world. Seriously, I can remember in one of my earliest preaching class experiences when the teacher was trying to help us grasp the finer points of outlining our messages and ended up with sub-points A) thru Q) on the board under his second main point. No kidding. It forever altered my perception of the job of a preacher.
Of course, I don’t think that everyone who practices alliteration is evil or dumb, I’m just wore out on the five P’s of this and sixteen J’s of that. Alliteration takes valuable energies that could be much better spent in service to the church and the world. I involuntarily tune out the moment I see sermon notes that have five blank lines all beginning with a capital “U:” because we’re getting the five great U’s of uber discipleship. OK, I don’t just tune out, my mind changes channels and rips off the tuner knob. And, though maybe not all preachers are crass enough to say it out loud, I simply preach the way I want to listen. That’s why not every preacher is right for every listener. I usually say it another way… if I’m not comfortable and enjoying myself, then I bet my listeners aren’t either.
And I think linear messages can lead directly to lazy listening. You know what lazy listening is right? That’s like when someone listens through a whole sermon, shakes hands afterward and compliments the preacher, and immediately moves on with life with nothing better than hopefully a subconscious plant to later haunt them. Lazy listening engenders no questioning of what the speaker just said, it engenders no curiosity or creativity, and it certainly never leads to interrupting the speaker during the message.
I think that classical American preaching set out to do two things, to inform and to convict. So my grandparents were trained to sit and receive information during a sermon and maybe be convicted to do something. These two movements were the meat and bread of persuasion. My grandparents’ generation really believed that they should listen to a sermon because it was good for them to do so, sort of like eating broccoli was supposed to be a good thing.
Later, some preacher with too much time on his/her hands decided to plant a joke in their sermon, and the modern preacher was born… now we’re going to inform, convict and make them like us, too! How liberating and exciting for a tired preacher! Critics of this new paradigm shift invariably call this the “entertainment” model of sermonizing. The more jealous they are of a preacher’s ability to be liked is directly related to their time spent calling it entertainment, even though that preacher is usually still playing the same old game of informing and trying to convict his/her audience. So, my parents were trained to sit and listen, but they really lived for the next humorous story or tear-jerking anicdote. They were willing eat their broccoli, but now demanded some melted cheese on top, because really!
Listen, I’ve done all that! I’ve laid out my points, I’ve brought the Reader’s Digest to bear on important topics, and I’ve tried to bring folks down front during fifteen verses of Just As I Am with tearful pleas between each verse. But these days I’m more interested in getting people engaged than persuaded. I would be just as happy if one of my sermons made someone go be a student of the Bible in an attempt to prove me wrong then because I was so eloquent. I’d love to think that our circular weave through paintings, scripture and life one Sunday morning caused an artist to think about writing a new song or putting brush to canvas. I would often rather one of my sermons leave you with a big question than a big answer. Why? Because I don’t fear God blasting you for something you don’t know more than I hope for you to seek God in a new way, a new question or a renewed period of reflection.
Then again, someone might do what I usually do when listening to a sermon… often I hear a word or phrase early on and disconnect because it’s sent me off on a grand chase down some rabbit hole of scripture or reflection. I’m always grateful to the preacher for kicking off that journey for me, though I probably didn’t hear their message’s conclusion, much less was I persuaded by it. But I did engage. Folks are welcome to do the same during my sermons.
Really… look again at Jeremiah 31:33-34, especially the second part: “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbors, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” Sounds like the end of preaching as a profession, huh? Maybe it is, or maybe it is a reminder that God wants a lot more engendered in the hearts of all the people than in the pulpits and sermons of the churches. Maybe this new covenant hope has been stalled because we keep wanting folks more focussed on what we’re saying than what we’re releasing them to experience.
I’ll stop here. I’m almost ranting, and that’s not always constructive. Peace!