Archive for December, 2014

Incarnation Trumps Sentimentality

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on December 31, 2014 by timtrue

John 1:1-18

There’s quite a bit of sentimentality that accompanies the Christmas season in modern America. Do these sayings sound familiar?

  • Jesus is the reason for the season
  • Keep Christ in Christmas

But we know there’s more to it.  Christmas is about the Incarnation:

  • He came down from heaven;
  • He became incarnate;
  • He suffered, died, and rose again;
  • And he ascended to heaven, where he is now seated at the right hand of the Father and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Descent and ascent.  And this is all true!

But there’s even more to it than this.

And here, in today’s passage in John, we are invited to go deeper.  For the Gospel writer John starts talking about Jesus in a different way than the other three Gospels.  John doesn’t start with events surrounding Jesus’s birth—as we read in Matthew and Luke; John doesn’t start with the events surrounding the beginning of Jesus’s ministry—as we read in Mark.  Rather, John starts at the beginning of all things.

“In the beginning,” he writes: a direct reference to the first words of the Bible.

So what happened when God created the heavens and the earth?  “In the beginning was the Word,” John continues.  “And the Word was with God.  And the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.”

So, John points out, in the beginning Jesus Christ, the Word, was there.  At the beginning of all things, it wasn’t just God the Father there creating it all.  The Word was there too.  He was with God.  And yet, enigmatically, he was somehow also God.

So when we think of the Incarnation, we shouldn’t limit our thinking just to the sentimentality of the season. Also, we shouldn’t constrain our thinking to descent and ascent.  The Incarnation, rather, has always been present.

Now, this eternal perspective puts something of a different spin on how we view the holiday season at the end of 2014.

“Jesus is the reason for the season,” yes; and we should strive to “keep Christ in Christmas.”  But the Incarnation runs so much more deeply.  The Word of God has become flesh.  The creator of the universe has descended to human realms of time and space as a baby named Jesus.  The God of all things has been born in a manger!

Think about Jesus’s life—what we know of it uniquely from the Gospel of John.

John tells the story of Nicodemus, a Jewish leader and teacher who came to Jesus in the dead of night out of fear of what the other Jewish leaders would say.  But Jesus doesn’t reprimand him.  Rather, he has compassion and tells Nicodemus a glorious and paradoxical parable about being born again.  Out of this story comes the most quoted verse of the Bible, in fact: John 3:16: For God so loved the world. . . .

John tells the story of Lazarus.  Remember this one?  Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, is sick.  But he doesn’t go to him right away.  When he finally does arrive, Lazarus is already dead.  In fact, he’s been dead so long already that there is a stench.  Lazarus is dead—and decaying!  Mary and Martha seem both desperate and hopeful.  Then, right here, before Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, what does he do?  He weeps!  Jesus, incarnate God, weeps with his friends!

There are other revealing stories unique to this Gospel too:

  • Jesus stoops and writes some unknown message in the dirt before a crowd ready to stone a woman caught in adultery—writing until all the crowd departs.
  • Jesus rebukes his stingy treasurer, a guy named Judas, for his reaction to a woman pouring expensive ointment on her savior’s feet.
  • Jesus heals a man born blind—and compassionately loves him after the synagogue excommunicates him.

What do these stories teach us?  Jesus knew all the joys and heartaches we know.  He was compassionate.  He was loving.

God is beyond our comprehension in many ways.  But we know God through Jesus Christ, the Word, the Incarnation.

The Incarnation, then, is not the sentimentality of the season. The Incarnation is not some dried up, old academic theory.  The Incarnation is not ancient history, irrelevant to us and the lives we live today.

Rather, the Incarnation is the living and present Word of God.  He forever has been; he forever is; and he forever will be.

We encounter him here, at church—in our fellowship with one another; in the Bible, the Word of God, read and proclaimed; in confessing our faith together in the Creed; in our prayers; and especially in Communion.

But we encounter him not just here.  We encounter the living Word, Jesus Christ, every moment of our lives—if we’re paying attention!

He’s with us in the making of lunches, in the folding of laundry, in taking out the trash and doing the dishes, and in the daily commute.  He’s with us at the family holiday meal, in the games we play together, and in the opening of presents.  He’s with us, too, in the eyes of that homeless person who sits in the downtown park across the street from St. Mark’s.

Jesus is the reason for the season, yes; but Jesus, the Word, the Incarnation, is also our reason for striving to live faithful Christian lives every day, throughout the year, regardless of the season—lives faithful in what we say and think; lives faithful in what we do; lives faithful to the Incarnate God who dwells in us.

May our prayers be not only in our hearts, but also in our hands and feet.

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Venerating the Manger?

Posted in Homilies with tags , on December 25, 2014 by timtrue

manger

Luke 2:1-20

I begin with a comparison and contrast, to establish context.

Before getting into the details of Jesus’s birth, Luke mentions Caesar Augustus.  Caesar, meaning emperor.  And all the world knew it!—or at least all the world that mattered, the same all the world that was called to be registered for a census.  Augustus Caesar: after whom the month of our calendar is named; deified by the Romans after his death; called king of kings and lord of lords by upper and lower classes alike.

No small amount of pomp and circumstance accompanied him wherever he went, throughout his life.  It didn’t matter who you were or what social class you belonged to: whenever his cavalcade approached you had to stop whatever you were doing and focus your attention on him.  He was Caesar, after all; and could favor you or smite you as a god.  Indeed, songs, poems, encomiums, even hymns were written about his birth, life, and death.

In contrast, we turn to the baby Jesus.  By all accounts—except for one, which we’ll get to in a moment—his entrance into the world is anything but pomp and circumstance.  His mother and father are traveling by foot, more or less, with one small donkey, in order to register for this mandated census.  Later we hear that they offer a dove as a sacrifice—the allowable sacrifice for the poorer classes.  When Joseph and very pregnant Mary knock on the door of an inn, no special favors are made for them.  There is no political clout; no bargains are struck.  In fact, when the baby is born, he is laid in a manger, the feeding trough of an animal.  By all accounts Jesus’s birth is altogether ordinary.

But then a few shepherds show up.  They’re dusty with work, maybe even sweaty, grimy, and smelly.  This fact in and of itself is perhaps quite ordinary too, on the surface.  For the baby is in a manger: perhaps Mary, Joseph, and the baby are in the shepherds’ work space; perhaps the shepherds are coming into a stable in order to grab something needed out in the fields.  Nothing too out-of-the-ordinary here—at least on the surface.

But then the shepherds start to tell their story.  “Amazing!” one exclaims.  “Unbelievable!” cries another.  And Mary and Joseph begin to piece together that the shepherds saw something, a vision maybe, or more!  One angel with a message, and then a great multitude of them, apparently, appeared to these guys in the field.  And the message?  This baby—you will know him because he is lying in a manger, of all places!—he is the Savior of the world, the Messiah, the Lord.

And as hearers of this story we think: Maybe this birth isn’t so ordinary after all.

So here’s our contrast.  By all worldly appearances, Caesar is king of kings and lord of lords.  He has come from the upper classes, he has gained the upper hand on all his enemies, and he is the emperor over all the known world.  He has all of the pomp and circumstance to show it.

On the other hand, this baby Jesus has nothing to show.  He is born into a low socioeconomic class, into a nationality that is subject to the oppressive hand of Roman oversight.  By all worldly appearances, his birth is entirely ordinary.

But what about heavenly appearances?

This baby’s birth is heralded by a vast multitude of heavenly hosts!  Not even the emperor Augustus can claim this credential.  Is this baby, perhaps, the king and lord even of Caesar himself?  Is Jesus the true King of kings and Lord of lords?

With this context in mind, let’s turn our attention to the manger.

Three times it is mentioned in this passage.  The first is in the narrative: after Mary gave birth to a son, she wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, for there was no room for them in the inn.  The second mentioning is in the angel’s message to the shepherds: “You will find a child . . . lying in a manger.”  And the third is again in the narrative: so the shepherds went and found the child lying in the manger.

The manger, mentioned three times, is significant.  But why?

The answer comes in the middle, in the message proclaimed to the shepherds by the heavenly messenger.  Just before the angel says, “You will find a child . . . lying in a manger,” he says, “This will be a sign for you.”

The manger is a sign.  It is the defining object by which the shepherds will know who this baby is—this ordinary baby that is the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord of the universe.  The manger points to Christ.

The problem comes when we forget this.

I have a dog, a nine year-old Labrador Retriever named Arwen.  The other day I spilled some food on the kitchen floor.  And I thought, well, I’ll just let her in and she’ll lick it up lickety-split.  Easy schmeasy!  But when I put this plan into action—when I opened the back door, whistled for her, and she came bounding into the house, happy, tail wagging furiously, and drooling—I pointed at the food and said, “Eat, dog!”  But she didn’t.

Instead, she looked (not at the floor but) at my finger; and started licking it!  She smelled the food, sure.  But when I pointed to it, instead of her looking to where I was pointing, she made the assumption (a perfectly natural assumption for a dog, I suppose) that the food was in my hand, not on the floor to where my finger was pointing.  So she licked my hand—to her disappointment!

Sometimes I have to wonder if we’re like my dog–we, meaning our culture.  I wonder if we look at the manger and get so caught up in the quaintness of the story that we forget the deeper, more significant meaning, that it is a signpost merely pointing us to the Savior, Messiah, and Lord.

I wonder if we get so caught up with the quaintness of the season—all the wonderful lights and decorations, the shopping, the hot chocolate, the family time—that we get distracted from the deeper reality that is Christmas.

I wonder if the gifts we give and receive become such a beckoning and inviting pointer finger that we fail to see past them, to the greatest gift that has ever been given and received.

Whatever the case, not here, not now!  Not us!  We–not the broader culture, but we who are here today–we have each taken time out of our busy, holiday-dazed lives to gather this morning.  Here we are considering the manger.

But today the manger has taken on a different shape–a deeper, more profound shape.  Today we come not to a feeding trough but to a Table, the Lord’s Table; also a signpost of the Savior, Messiah, and Lord of the universe.

From a worldly and cultural perspective, what we do here today might look and feel quite ordinary.  But from a heavenly point of view, we are joining a great multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Painting the Annunciation

Posted in Musings with tags , , , , on December 23, 2014 by timtrue

Dante_Gabriel_Rossetti_-_Ecce_Ancilla_Domini!_-_Google_Art_Project

A couple of days ago I included this painting in my post “Infinitely Intimate,” a homily on the Annunciation.  I chose it for a couple of reasons.

First, it captures Mary’s mixture of feelings quite well, don’t you think?  Gabriel appears to her and announces that she will bear a child.  She responds, “How can this be?”  The angel also tells her not to be afraid.  Finally, she resolves that, yes, she will do this wonderful task (bear the very Incarnation) as faithfully as she can.  Point is, what a mixture of emotions must have been flooding through her being all at once!–doubt, skepticism, and fear at least, perhaps a lot more.  Don’t you think the painter has done a pretty good job at capturing this in Mary’s face?

The second reason I chose it was because of the artist himself: Dante Gabriel Rosetti.  I know very little about this artist; but he is the brother of Christina Rosetti, a fairly well-known nineteenth-century English poet.  She penned words I hope you’re familiar with, a poem entitled “In the Bleak Midwinter, ” famously set to music by Gustav Holst among others.  (Holst’s setting is in the 1982 Episcopal Hymnal, #112.)  I like to think his sister Christina was his model for this one, though I haven’t been able to verify it.

Anyway, these two reasons compelled me to include this particular painting (of the many many available).  Call me sentimental, idealistic, whatever.  But there’s just something beautiful about sibling artists collaborating in the great conversation.

Intimately Infinite

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , on December 21, 2014 by timtrue

Dante_Gabriel_Rossetti_-_Ecce_Ancilla_Domini!_-_Google_Art_Project

Luke 1:26-38

Let’s begin by talking about vocation. What is vocation?

Many would say that vocation is what you want to do with your life.  In this sense, it answers that question we all ask growing up: What do I want to be when I grow up?

For instance, near the end of high school, my friend Bob decided he wanted to be a fighter pilot.  This dream quickly became his main goal in life.  In ways, it even became an obsession.  He began to do everything he could to realize his dream.  He learned what kind of major he should declare in college, what kinds of grades he should shoot for, how to enter Officer Candidate School; he even took some flying lessons.  And, I’m happy to say, in time Bob realized his dream.  He graduated college, joined the Air Force, and flew F16s.

But this idea—that your vocation is what you want to do when you grow up—does not quite capture the real meaning of the word vocation.  Your vocation may be someday to be a pilot—or a teacher, a lawyer, a mom, a dad, a businessperson, whatever—in the future.  But you also have a vocation right now, in the present.

In fact, this is your real vocation.  That other thing we’ve been talking about, that job you hope to have someday, that’s more an aspiration than a vocation.  What you do and who you are—your so-called lot in life—right now is your vocation, not some dream about the future.

The trouble comes when your present vocation changes suddenly and unexpectedly: when something happens in your life that radically changes who you are and what you do in your day-to-day routine.

Hannah’s vocation, for instance, changed dramatically when her little sister Emily was born—and Hannah knew it!  A toddler, less than two years-old, Hannah came home from Grandma’s house to be greeted by her brand new baby sister.  Suddenly Hannah’s world, her day-to-day routine, had been radically altered.  Her response was to let out a wail to frighten away even the most wizened alley cat.

Fortunately, a quick thinking and experienced grandma whisked Hannah away to Baskin-Robbins for a grandma-to-granddaughter talk.  And when Hannah returned, she walked over to her brand new baby sister, pointed, looked at me with an obviously forced smile, and said, “See?  Baby!”—about fifty times in a row!

Anyway, whether wailing or putting on her game face, Hannah’s vocation had changed suddenly and radically.

Vocational changes can be positive: you get that job you’ve always dreamed about; you publish a book; you welcome a new child into the family.  Or they can be negative: you’re unexpectedly fired from a job; you can no longer afford your lifestyle; you lose a loved one.

Whatever the case, something about your vocation changes.  What you are called to do at this moment is now radically altered from what you were doing and who you called to be last week.

Now, with this perspective on vocation, put yourself in Mary’s shoes. Gabriel appears to her and relays a message.  “You will be a mother,” the angel says, “despite seemingly impossible odds.  Your life, your vocation, is about to be radically altered.”

We know how Mary responds to this message.  “Let it be with me according to your word,” she says.

But this response comes at the end of the passage.  What do you think was going through her mind in the middle?  How do you think she was tempted to react to Gabriel?  How would you have reacted?

Would you have doubted the angel’s words?  Would you maybe have said something like, “I’m to have a baby?  What?  How can this be?”

Would you have been skeptical?  “You say you’re an angel named Gabriel?  Ha!  I know this seems real and all, but it’s got to be really just a dream.”

Would you have been afraid?  “I’m not ready to raise a child!”

How about this one: would you have rebelled?  “No!  You can’t make me do this.  You’ve got the wrong girl, Gabriel.  God’s not fair!”

But here’s the thing: if Mary had responded any differently, would it have changed the fact that her life was about to be radically altered?  Would it have changed her new vocation?

To tell the truth, Mary did doubt; she was skeptical; and she was afraid!  She asked the very question I named above: “How can this be?”

But I’m not going to say she was rebellious.  No, that is not what the text says.  Rather, she was obedient.  She submitted to God’s will—she even welcomed it: “Let it be with me according to your word”!

Still, even if she had rebelled, it would not have changed her new vocation!

How do I know this?  Because it just happened in the first half of this chapter (Luke 1) with Mary’s cousin, a man named Zechariah.  An Angel appeared to him and gave him a message.  He rebelled.  God did his will anyway.

If your vocation—your present lot in life—has been suddenly and radically changed, no amount of doubt, skepticism, fear, or rebellion can alter your new vocation.

You see, Mary’s new vocation does not depend on her—anything she can or cannot do; any attitude she may or may not show. Whining or complaining about it won’t make it go away.  Running from it or ignoring it won’t change the fact that it’s real.  Mary knows this.  And she accepts this.  Her response simply reveals her character—a character that trusts God to lead.

Which leads to a question: How do you respond to your present circumstances?

Consider with me:

  • Do you welcome change, maybe especially change you don’t like?
  • To what extent are you able to trust in God’s leading when things don’t go your way?
  • Do you ever blame God for your present lot in life?
  • Do you ever get angry at God?
  • What do your responses to change say about your character?

But an even better question than what this passage reveals about our character is, What does this story reveal about God’s character?

We don’t know why God allows hard changes to affect us.  We can talk about free agency and election and other related theologies until we’re blue in the face—and some theologians have!  But at the end of the day, we still don’t know.

But we do see something in this story that tells us God is incomprehensively good.

God is infinite, beyond our greatest comprehension.  Yet at a specific time in history this infinite God sought out a particular empire; and a particular (rural) region within that empire; and a particular (common) girl in that rural region of that empire.  And God did this in order to bring about his saving will for all of creation.

Do you see?  The same God who is infinite beyond all comprehension is also intimately caught up in the details of each of our lives.  He knows the number of the hairs on your head.  He knows the hard changes you must face throughout your life, even before they happen.  He knows your struggles.

Do you, then—do we—have any other right response than Mary’s?  Let it be with us according to God’s word.

The Coming Weirdness

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2014 by timtrue

Nicolas_Poussin

Mark 1:1-8

The Gospel of Mark begins differently, weirdly even.

Here we sit in Advent, waiting for the coming Christ.

The last couple of weeks we’ve been considering the end of the ages, when Christ shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

But now we’ve begun to change direction.  No longer are we preoccupied with the end of all things.  Instead, we are anticipating a new beginning: a particular advent: the birth of a baby boy named Jesus.  Now we are looking ahead to Christmas.

And so our lectionary turns to the beginnings of the Gospels—to something new, something fresh: birth; new life.

Matthew and Luke tell the stories of an angel coming to a peasant girl and telling her that she is highly favored, that she shall bear the child of God most high, and that he shall be called Emmanuel, God with us.

John’s account varies a bit.  He still focuses on Jesus as the incarnation of God.  But instead of beginning with a baby, John begins with the beginning.  “In the beginning,” he writes—harking back to the very first words of the Bible.  And so John tells of Jesus’s theological purpose, that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

In this sense, then, John is explaining what takes place in Matthew and Luke.

But not Mark.  Mark is altogether different.

His first words state: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.”

And we might think, “The beginning.  Ah, that sounds like the Gospel of John.”

But rather than continue to offer some kind of explanation for who Jesus is, Mark’s focus shifts abruptly to someone else: to some sort of retro figure called John the baptizer.

You all know John the baptizer, don’t you?  He’s the one Isaiah wrote about—long ago.  You know, Isaiah, that well-known albeit archaic prophet.  Anyway, Isaiah writes about a messenger in the wilderness who is not the Lord himself but will prepare a way for the Lord.

Well, that messenger—John the baptizer—he’s here, camped out by the river Jordan, preaching good news about the coming Messiah and baptizing the crowds of people coming to him for repentance.  And get this!  He eats locusts and wild honey; and he wears clothes right out of the ancient past.  If you ask me, I’d say he’s Elijah come down in his whirlwind.

Are you getting the point?  The beginning of Mark is different.  The beginning of Mark is weird.

But we’re not weird. No way!  We’re normal.  We fit the mold.

As individuals, we try to be like everyone else—or at least to be like the group we most closely identify with.

Okay, granted, some of us try to be different.  But ultimately we still fit in.  Have you ever noticed this?

The Goth movement began during my high school days.  The first kid to show up to school in all black, with black fingernail polish and heavy black make-up, well, I’ve got to hand it to her.  That took a lot of guts!  She made a statement.  She was identifying with a musical movement and wanted to tell the world about it in her own, individual way.  She was being different, in a sense.

The second student to do this was a guy—which took a lot of guts too, especially when he showed up with pierced ears and black fingernail polish.  But then it was like a new student began to express his or her individuality everyday—through the Goth look—until the Goths were one of the bigger groups on campus.  In the end, Goth wasn’t different at all; instead, it had become a sort of norm!

(Anyway if they really want to wear all black, they should just become priests!)

There’s always a group—those with whom we most closely identify—which fits within our definition of normalcy.  As much as we value individualism and independence in our culture, at our core we still desire community.  It’s part of our human nature.

But what do we do with those who don’t seem to fit in anywhere—people who are such individuals that they don’t fit into any group—people like John the baptizer?  Don’t we tend to exclude, collude, ostracize, or medicate them?

The River Normalcy is wide.  There’s a lot of room in it for us swimmers—as long as we swim in the right direction.  But anyone who tries to swim against the current, or all those people who are gasping on the riverbank because they can’t keep up with the swiftness, well, then we tell ourselves there’s no room for them in the river anyway.

For those who don’t go with the flow, what to do with them we do not know.

But we have our reasons—good reasons.  We’re normal, because we want the culture to take us seriously.  We’re normal, because we want people to respect us.  We’re normal, because we want people to come to us, to hear our message, and to partake in our waters of baptism.

It was the same with John the baptizer.  His culture took him seriously.  The people of his day respected him.  They came to him, they listened to his message, and they partook in his waters of baptism.

But he wasn’t normal.  He was weird.

I wonder, what would it look like if some John-type person walked into our midst this morning? What would happen if some wild-looking, smelly, bedraggled, undernourished man walked onto our church steps this morning—and started preaching repentance?  Would you be uncomfortable?  Would you say something to him?  Would you let your kids talk to him?

Joshua Bell is a world-class violinist.  He tours all over the world, performing with the greatest symphony orchestras.

One day in 2007, Bell, then 39 years old, decided to put on a pair of blue jeans, a t-shirt, and a ball cap, backwards; and he took his Stradivarius—a $4 million-violin—to a Metro station in Washington, D. C.  He laid his violin case open at his feet and began to play during the morning commute.  He wasn’t playing simple ditties either, those you might hear from an amateur; but six Bach partitas for solo violin: a genuine recital.

You know what happened?  During this forty-five minute recital, only a few people stopped to listen—mostly small children who were quickly whisked away by their guardians.  Most people avoided making eye contact with Bell altogether; the ones who did quickly looked away.  A few passersby threw change in Bell’s open case.

At last Bell finished.  As he put his violin away, no one clapped; no one stopped to talk.  Bell counted the money in his violin case: $32.17.  By the way, just two nights before, Bell had played to a sold out crowd in Boston whose seats had averaged more than $100 each.

I tell this story because it is suggestive.  Joshua Bell is an internationally renowned violinist.  And yet, with the exception of a few children, the people of D. C. were so preoccupied with their daily commutes that they pretended not to notice him.  A world-class musician was in their midst and they avoided eye contact; a violinist for whom patrons routinely pay hundreds of dollars, and the people of D. C. walked right on by!  He seemed weird, out of place.

Wouldn’t it be weird if an out-of-place, wild-looking, smelly, bedraggled, undernourished man walked into our midst this morning?  Wouldn’t it be only natural for us to pretend not to notice him—or worse, to avoid him?

Well, guess what: he has walked into our midst.  Today.  Right out of Mark’s Gospel.  And I hope his appearance does indeed strike you as a little weird.

But that’s the nature of this thing we call the Kingdom of God. God has come to earth as a human.  God has lived and died as one of us.  God has risen from the dead.  And God will come again in power and great glory.  Does any of this strike you as at least a little weird?

And here’s the thing about weird: you can’t ignore it.  Sure, you can pretend not to notice it.  Or you can consciously avoid making eye contact with it.  But it’s right here in our midst, preaching repentance, playing a violin recital, eating locusts and wild honey.  You can’t ignore it.

And the particular weirdness we encounter this morning, on this second Sunday of Advent, is pointing to an even greater weirdness: a weird coming Messiah ushering in a weird Kingdom.

What are we going to do with all this weirdness?  Are we going to pretend it’s not here?  Are we going to act like it’s all perfectly normal?  Are we going to avoid it?

Whatever we do, it is impossible to ignore it.

Honing the Craft

Posted in Doing Church, Education, Reflection with tags , , , , , , , , on December 5, 2014 by timtrue
Preaching like Augustine?

Preaching like Augustine?

Earlier this week I had the tremendous privilege of attending a preaching conference.  I’ve attended conferences on preaching before, sure.  But this one was different.  Five of us–all priests of some sort of Anglican stripe–got to hang around one of the world’s most respected preachers for three days.  That preacher was Will Willimon (pictured below), sometime United Methodist Bishop of Alabama and present professor at Duke University’s Divinity School.

220px-William_Henry_Willimon_(2011)

The format was simple.  We each came to present and discuss two sermons.  An hour was given for each.  We’d listen as the presenter preached; then we’d discuss, critique, etc. for the remainder of the hour.

While not a requirement, my first sermon I’d already prepared and given elsewhere.  The other (for me) was to be a work in progress.  That is, my plan was to take time on Tuesday afternoon and evening, during some allotted free time, to write a second sermon, which I would then present on Wednesday morning in almost final-draft form.

Such was my plan anyway.

What actually happened was the three hours of free time Tuesday afternoon turned into an hour because of lunch discussion and ensuing conversations.  And the five or so hours I had set aside on Tuesday night turned into a gouda-mushroom buffalo burger, two pints of a local (to Dallas) craft porter, and conversation with my new best friend Lawrence, a priest from the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina; leaving me with only two or so hours to create (which I turned into three by staying up an extra hour, till midnight).

Point is, when it came time to preach my second sermon, “Um,” I confessed, “this ain’t anything like a final draft; it’s still very much a work in progress.”

By work in progress I don’t mean lack of length.  I had about 1,200 words, or 13 or so minutes of speaking (normalish length).  But I’d been dealing with two pretty substantive themes, both which should have their place, I’d rationalized, but was having trouble connecting them.  Etc.

Anyway, after my initial qualifications and run-through of Sermon 2, coupled with the feedback I’d already received from canned, preached-without-a-manuscript Sermon 1, the insights I received were invaluable.

I give you three that stick with me.

First, “You can preach the phonebook, Tim,” one of the priests told me, “and people will listen to you.  You have this incredible ability to draw people in just through your use of body language, variations of vocal intonations, and expression.”

Yeah, I was thinking, tell me more.

“But”–he did tell me more–“don’t rely on it.  You still need to have something valuable to say.”

Implication: what I said was lost in presentation.  Ugh!

But, really, it’s so true.  He told me this just after I’d preached Sermon 2, which really did come out as kind of a mess.  The themes were disjointed, for one thing.

“And your first theme was so strong,” Willimon added, “that I spent the second half of the sermon wondering how and when you’d come back to it.  But you never did.”

Point taken.  Clarity and concision are super important.

By the way, as I sat in the airport for two hours on Wednesday afternoon I revised this yet-to-be-preached sermon, starting by keeping the first third of my manuscript and deleting everything else.  I’m taking Willimon’s advice and developing only the first, strong theme.  I’ll save Theme 2 for another go around, next Advent maybe.

The second insight in fact comes from a theme that kept surfacing throughout the three days, culminating especially during a breakfast I enjoyed on Wednesday with Willimon himself.  Four of us were staying in the same hotel, which included an excellent breakfast (shout out to the Holiday Inn on SMU Blvd.), and as I exited the elevator, lo, there was the guru himself, sitting at a table by himself.  For my part, I didn’t even ask permission; I just sat down next to him and invaded his space.

He seemed okay with it.  Southern politeness maybe.

But then, “Tim,” he said, “you’re a musician.  So use your musicality in your sermons.  And don’t just draw parallels between musical forms and sermon forms” (which I do, by the way, and which we’d already discussed), “but incorporate crescendos, diminuendos, rests, fermatas–performance!  It will make you that much more engaging.”

Anyway, gold!

The third insight struck me like an epiphany.  This is what I needed to hear more than anything else all week.  And the coolest part is (because it shows how important collegiality is), it did not come from Willimon but from two of the other priests (albeit with Willimon chiming in).  These priests, I should add, (like Willimon) are seasoned teachers as well as preachers.  One is presently a seminary professor and the other has ten years’ seminary teaching experience.

So, it was an answer to a question I asked in one of our post-sermon discussions:

“In your mind, what’s the key difference between teaching and preaching?  You teach a thirty-minute lesson and you preach, say, a fifteen-minute sermon.  What’s the difference?”

And the answer seemed so simple:

“In teaching, we present truth, facts, points–information.  But in preaching, we’re after an encounter with the divine.”

So simple, but I’d never thought in this way before.

So now I’ve got a new goal in my sermons.  They’re not after relevance, an application for today, or increasing in knowledge and/or wisdom.  These things have their place; and they will often happen in sermons, sure.  But more important is the encounter with the divine–just prior (in Episcopal liturgy) to joining Christ at his Table for Communion with God and neighbor.

Beautiful!

Footnote: if you’re interested to see what my attempt at sermon-for-encounter looks like, stay tuned.  I will post my sermon (in manuscript form), the byproduct of this conference, on Sunday.