Archive for the ‘Preaching’ Category

“Puked out the prophet” was surely the best line from the sermon on Jonah offered by the double-teaming preachers who led worship at the Beaver Island Christian Church this past Sunday. Although they made two points too many, thus making it hard to remember any of the three, they did a fine job, except for one thing. I was distracted by how much effort one of the preachers put into asserting the historicity of Jonah’s story. Most awkward was the rather graphic description of Jonah following his three-day stint inside a large fish, whale, or whatever. Bits of seaweed, having been tenderized by marinating in gastric juices, and the powerful stench, all offered in order to make sense of Jonah’s post-puke visage.

If one wants to look for them, there are several things in Jonah’s story that confound. There is, of course, three days inside a large fish or whale amidst gastric juices but within an air bubble large enough to provide three days of air (good thing the fish didn’t belch). And then there’s that thing that happens at the gates of Nineveh. Arriving there, apparently in much the condition he was in after becoming the worlds first puked-up prophet (or so one of the preachers told us), Jonah, in a fine snit for having to go to Nineveh in the first place, gave a brief but to-the-point oratory that went something like, “You’re all evil and you’re gonna die!” The inhabitants of the Assyrian capital, cut to the quick, responded by donning sackcloth, fasting, and repenting as they turned toward God, all very Israelite things to do for a non-Israelite people who knew nothing of Israelite religion or Israel’s God.

While I have no interest here in arguing whether these events happened exactly the way a surface reading of the Bible relates, it is quite apparent that dwelling on these problematic parts of Jonah’s story does a fine job of helping one miss the points the story makes, all of which are as relevant to us today as they were to the original audience of the Jonah story. Trying to rationalize Jonah surviving three days inside a fish might lead one to miss the point that we cannot escape God. And trying to understand how all of Nineveh’s populace in a flash gets (Israelite) religion can distract one from understanding how God gives second chances, forgiveness, and reconciliation when we turn our hearts, minds, and lives to our Lord.

All too often I have been dragged into discussions on both sides of the continuum between uncritical reading of the Bible that takes all at face-value and thoroughgoing skepticism of the miraculous based in empiricism and science. Although a world apart, both sides make what I believe to be the same basic mistake: they ask questions and offer arguments that are beside the point of what the scriptures are telling us. While the unquestioning believer is busy trying to reason the supernatural, the miraculous, or any of the creation story with the skeptic who questions all of it claiming it all to be fictional, both have forgotten to ask the more important questions: What is the significance of these accounts? And What do these tell us about God?

The most simple example of this is from the first chapter of Genesis. People often get hung up about God doing God’s creative work in six days, followed by a seventh day upon which God put up the divine feet and rested. Arguments and rationalizations try to make sense of the six days. And some have gone as far as to use the genealogies in the Old Testament to date the universe at around 6,000 years . . . Plus seven days.

So what?!? Why should I care whether God created the universe 6,000 years ago and in six terrestrial days? The 300,000,000 year old Trilobite fossil displayed in my bookcase doesn’t care.

Instead, my interest in Genesis 1 (and 2) is why God created what God created and what the account tells us about God and us. Since I wasn’t around when God created the universe, I cannot say with any certainty how it all happened. I can, however, allow myself to be distracted trying to rationalize the text of Genesis as read from a 21st century, Western, post-Enlightenment, information-age point of view, and in doing so I would be committing the interpretive error of asking questions that are beside the point. The moment I shift from how and ask why, the text opens up in way that invites more exploration and reflection about God and our relationship with God and with each other.

It’s the same for Jesus’ resurrection. Getting into a debate as to whether it really happened or is a fiction created by the early church is, to me, a worthless effort. Asking why Jesus chose to not stay dead (and I cannot make sense of God’s new creation without him doing so) leads me to a far more fruitful understanding of what God is up to as God’s salvation history unfolds.

We’ve been educated to ask the “reporters’ questions”: what, who, when, how, and why. Unfortunately, we often try to read the Bible, an ancient near-east document written over the span of 2,000 to 3,000 years ago, with the same rubric forgetting that the biblical writers were most interested in why and far less interest in what, who, when, and how outside of the mechanics of crafting their narratives.

I’m not all that interested in how the Bible’s miracles and other supernatural events took place, nor do I care all that much what people choose to believe about them. Instead, my concern is that, instead of asking questions that are beside the point, readers ask why, and then let the scriptures take them down the rabbit hole to see how deep it goes.

I wonder what Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, would say if he was alive today.  Not only did he claim that “the world is my parish,” but he also argued the validity and necessity of interpreting the world through the Bible, claiming that he preached with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.  Though the bulk of his sermons focused on a myriad of theological topics, he had much to say about wealth, economics, and the plight of the poor.  As a preacher in the Wesleyan tradition, it does indeed feel natural to, like Wesley did, interpret the world through the Bible (and the teachings of the Church).  But in 2018’s world of extreme partisanship and drastic change, in which social and political norms are in radical flux, and those changes are perceived most often through tribal loyalty rather than dispassionate analysis, interpreting the world through the Bible and church teaching has become difficult and dangerous.

The trouble has nothing to do with the source material.  In fact, our Bible’s venerable prophets would be as busy as ever today.  Just today, in fact, the president of the U.S.A. gave an interview to the U.K.’s Sun newspaper excoriating the British Prime Minister, only to claim later in the day, while standing next to the Primer Minister, that he had not uttered any criticism at all.  Such an action by the leader of the U.S.A. begs a reflection on the sin of deceit, the very first one demonstrated in the Bible.  But should I do so, with a call to my congregation to seek a more excellent way of truthful public discourse by our leaders and representatives, I will alienate and surely anger those I pastor who support our president.  The sin will become less relevant than my apparent partisanship.

For the record, I don’t care who is in office or which party they belong to.  If their behavior fails to honor their leadership position or their decisions cause harm, then I will be critical of their behavior or policies.

But the question remains: How do I, as a preacher in the Wesleyan tradition, speak to issues that surround and affect us today and yet continue to be pastor to those whose loyalties and perspectives would be offended by my preaching?  To let anything get in the way of preaching Christ and the Gospel is wrong.  Yet Christ is not divorced from the world.  If we as Christ-followers are to be relevant to the world, then we must engage with it and, if needed, call out that which ought not to be or could be better.  After all, as  United Methodists, we are in the business of “making disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world.”

I don’t have an answer, so I guess I will continue to do as I do now by preaching along the razor’s edge.

Text:  Mark 6:53-56
People immediately recognized Jesus and ran around that whole region bringing sick people on their mats to wherever they heard he was.

So far, Jesus had performed exorcisms, healed many sick people, fed 5,000+ people, calmed two storms over the Sea of Galilee, ate with tax collectors and “sinners,” and baffled people with parables.  Along the way he had preached the imminent arrival of God’s Kingdom.  He had become famous in Galilee and crowds flocked to see him, but they did not come to Jesus to hear him preach or learn the finer points of their religion.  They came bringing their sick hoping for healing.

Today’s reading is grounding.  It reminds me that as fascinated as I am by Christian theology, Christology, pneumatology, and ecclesiology, that fascination is rarely shared by the people I serve as pastor.  Rather, their interests are more down to earth and practical.  They want to know how to live as people of good character who do good in the world, find strength and guidance for the day, and healing in times of suffering.

I have sometimes groused that it seems that too many people come to Christianity and church for free therapy.  They want to an uplifting experience that makes them feel better.  But the stress and anxiety brought on by national and world events over the last year or two have made me more aware that life can be difficult and our need for healing frequent.

Jesus never groused about people coming to him for healing.  He responded to them, not with theologically-centered sermons but with compassion by healing them.  He met needs no one else could meet.  We who serve as pastors would do well to get our heads out of our “-ologies”, offer Jesus’ healing to individuals, and lead our congregations to do works of compassion that bring healing to our world.

Text:  Mark 1.29-45

Part 1

It’s hard to miss the irony when reading today’s text.  I now live in a nation in which conservative Christian Evangelicals were a large part of the voting block that brought us a single-party Republican government that viewed the Affordable Care Act as anathema, despises Medicaid, and will probably need to scale back Medicare to pay for its recently enacted, top-weighted tax cuts.  Yet the first thing Jesus does as he begins his ministry is to heal people.  I realize that there is a lot to debate and carefully consider about having government involved in health care and I don’t know what is best to do vis-à-vis policy and legislation.  But I do see how health care in this country has become class-bound such that the higher one’s economic class, the better their access to good health care, which the “least of these” are most likely bereft.

Damn the politics and party ideology!  If people need healing and the technical/medical means are available to do so, then they should be healed. . . and without putting them into a lifetime of debt!

Part 2

It’s easy to see Jesus as a healer and miss the larger thing that he was doing.  “Let’s head . . . to the nearby villages so that I can preach there too.” (v.28) — As wonderful as his healing ministry was, Jesus’ larger task was proclamation of the coming Kingdom of God.  It is the first thing he did following the arrest of John the Baptist.

But, how can preaching be more important than healing?
A better question to ask is, does Jesus’ preaching mean anything without his healing work?

Jesus preaches/proclaims the coming Kingdom of God, and then by healing “many who were sick with all kinds of diseases” and exorcising “many demons,” he demonstrated what that Kingdom will, in part, look like.  In other words, Jesus preached the Kingdom, then brought the Kingdom.  These were not isolated actions.

This is chastening to me as a preacher because now I have to ask, as I preach the coming Kingdom, what am I doing to lead the Body of Christ in my community to bringing it about?

Text:  Romans 10:11-18

This one hits like a brick . . . As followers of Christ, one of our tasks–maybe the most important one–is to tell others about him and the love of God people can experience through him.  Very often people tell me (in so many words) that they feel awkward sharing their faith or that they don’t know what to say (which is usually a rationale that provides cover for feeling awkward).  So they keep their witness and testimony to themselves.  Until reading today’s text we might write this off saying, “it’s okay; faith sharing is not for everyone.”

And then Paul throws this fastball:

“All who call on the Lord’s name will be saved.  So how can they call on someone they don’t have faith in?  And how can they have faith in someone they haven’t heard of?  And how can they hear without a preacher?”  (vv. 13-14)

In other words, unless one is told through witness, testimony, proclamation, or interpretation of Scripture, one will not learn about God’s mighty works in Jesus Christ to redeem us all and they will most likely not develop a saving relationship with God.  Every time we have the opportunity to offer Christ (or clear up misunderstandings about him) and decline to do so, we bereft someone of the opportunity to either begin, grow, or restore relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

Yeah, this is heavy stuff and a big responsibility . . . No one said the abundant gift of God in our lives didn’t come with the imperative to share.

One may try to cleverly object to this, saying that Paul talks about the message being conveyed by a preacher (v. 14), therefore only those with “preacher” in their job description have a faith-sharing responsibility.  Balderdash!  Everyone whose life has been touched and transformed by Jesus can tell others about the Christ they know.  Everyone can share a word about Christ, and if excessive eloquence doesn’t get in the way, all the better!

Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  (mission statement of The United Methodist Church)

It’s that last bit—“for the transformation of the world”—that has driven my ministry since I retired from software engineering a baker’s-dozen years ago to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.  And it’s that last bit that obliges United Methodist preachers to bring the affairs of the outside world into the church, a place where a good many would prefer to be a sanctuary away from the conflicts and anxieties of the world.  If we are to be a Christ-following people of world transformation, we must engage the world and do so within the context of Christian community (i.e. the church).  Bit, never have I known this imperative to be so difficult as it is today.

In this winter of our divisive discontent, having just elected a president unlike any other, and whose leadership is decisive, unconventional, and results-oriented (bypassing the red-tape to fulfill campaign promises), yet sometimes dysfunctional and too-often immoral (lying and promulgation of prejudice against Mexicans and Muslims), a Christ-centered perspective on current events is necessary.  We need to sort out and clarify who we are and what we believe as Christians (individually and as a church), and then interact with our world from that identity.

My first impulse, not unlike that of the bazillions of commentators and trolls on social media, is to speak and preach directly to our current situation.  But to do so would allow me to drift too far into preaching political and social opinion rather than interpretation of the Bible.

My solution to this problem, and I hope it works, will be to focus first on the Bible and its theology.  Our turbulent world will always be in the background, but with the Bible and Jesus Christ in the foreground, those to whom I preach and teach will receive from me tools for making their own decisions about the world around us.  In other words, I want to “Make disciples of Jesus Christ.”  They will, in turn, go forth and impact the world around them in their own unique ways.

Part of me feels like this is a bit of a cop-out that allows me to avoid conflict, and it may be, but I do not see how we get to “the transformation of the world” without first “making disciples of Jesus Christ.”  And it will be those disciples who, out of their own deep faith and Spirit-stoked inspiration, will do whatever they do best to make a difference in the world.  I intend not to get in the way of that by alienating the very people whom I am trying to help become more devoted disciples of Christ.

As voices within The United Methodist Church (UMC) continue to argue human sexuality, vis-a-vis, homosexuality, they continue to do so while ignoring the proverbial 800 pound gorilla sitting in the middle of the room.  A good example of how some of our more thoughtful UMs miss the most crucial point is exposed a quote from Rev. Jeff Greenway, who led Asbury Theological Seminary while I was matriculating there.  In a piece he wrote explaining  the purpose of the newly formed Wesleyan Covenant Association, a conservative forum for UMs, and offering thoughts on the Council of Bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward, which will try to sort out our issues of human sexuality, Rev. Greenway said (emphasis mine),

“Let me be clear—human sexuality is not the cause of our differences—it is the presenting symptom. The real causes of our division are related to the nature, role and authority of Scripture—the nature of salvation—and the work of sanctification in the life and conduct of a follower of Jesus. We are miles apart in these basic beliefs and it makes our covenantal relationship untenable. We use the same language, sometimes quote the same scriptures or Wesley sermons, but we are speaking about entirely different expressions of faith”

Rev. Greenway almost sees the 800 lb. gorilla. He is spot on that the arguments we have over homosexuality are proxies, carrying the water for deeper issues that a few, like Greenway, are either insightful or bold enough to raise to the surface. As Greenway, and a good many others who claim the “conservative” label see it, the real issue is a difference of opinion about the authority of the Bible. Alas, this is where we get stuck again because we haven’t yet dug deep enough to unearth the core issue.  Moreover, when conservatives claim that they support the authority of Scripture, then they are also claiming that the same authority is being ignored by progressives (those who support the full inclusion of homosexuals into membership and ordained ministry, and who advocate defying The Disciple in those places where it lists proscriptions against homosexuality).  This is not a debate but an indictment that gives progressives no way to respond.

The very debate that we are neglecting–the 800 pound gorilla–is not human sexuality, or even the authority of Scripture (which faithful people on both sides will say is all important and inviolable), but how we interpret the Bible.

Competent, critical interpretation of the Bible is a basic required skill of all UM clergy.  The preaching, teaching, and spiritual guidance that is our business are dependent on our ability to do more than skim a page of the Bible and then simply parrot back what it says (although some scripture allows for this, e.g. “Jesus wept”). However , we can interpret the Bible using various rubrics. One common rubric is a literalist rubric that assumes what was written a long time ago in a land far away is absolutely universal in meaning. This contrasts with the kind of interpretation many of us are trained to do by using the tools of literary criticism, historical criticism, social/psychological criticism, coupled with the commentaries of the church throughout its history. Nor surprisingly, these varying interpretive rubrics can render differing interpretations of a text.

Until we begin sideline accusations about who does and does not recognize the true meaning and authority of Scripture so we can discus how we interpret Scripture, we will progress no further, and, worse, our differing positions will entrench.

Let’s stop ignoring the 800 lb gorilla—It’s not invisible.