Archive for Clarity

Calling Light

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 2, 2017 by timtrue

Been a while since I’ve posted. Not that I haven’t been writing! Chalk it more up to being too busy, if anything. Out of necessity, really, my blog has dropped to a lower rung on the priority ladder recently. Maybe it’s because Holy Week and Easter make up the busiest time of the year for us pastors. Maybe it’s because a nasty virus decided to make itself at home for a while in my body. Maybe it’s because I recently announced my resignation from St. Paul’s (blog post to follow soon on THAT). Maybe, probably, it’s a combination. Whatever the case, what follows is my sermon from Easter Day, April 16.

Antiveduto_Gramatica_-_Mary_Magdalene_at_the_Tomb_-_WGA10352[1]

John 20:1-18

Today is Easter:

  • the day when Jesus rose from the dead;
  • the day when enslaving sin, darkness, and death have been forever vanquished;
  • the day when more visitors come to church than any other of the year.

And so, on this day when more visitors are likely to attend than any other, we pastors are told, trim the roses, cut the lawn, clean the bathrooms, create an inviting nursery space, provide a fun Easter egg hunt, and, by all means, preach a simple sermon!

Well, I do hope you visitors and regulars alike find our grounds appealing and our facilities clean and our Easter egg hunt fun.

But I’m not so sure about the simple sermon.

I may not be the best gauge, but my impression is that visitors to church in this day and age aren’t really looking for some easy, laid back, elevator homily. If that’s what people are after, in my experience anyway, then in this day and age, why come to church at all—on Easter or any other Sunday?

People aren’t visiting church like they used to, we all know that. The sense of obligation—the social pressure—just isn’t there anymore.

Instead, visitors to churches on this Easter Sunday—as I see it anyway—more often than not are genuinely interested in the Christian story.

So, that’s what I’m going to do today: I’m going to tell the Christian story.

And I’m not going to hold back. I’m going to ask you to put on your thinking caps; to make some connections between the old, old story and our modern lives, connections that maybe haven’t occurred to us before.

So: our starting point is a metaphor.

If you’ve been with me for the last several weeks, during Lent this year, then you’ve heard me refer to this metaphor time and again; for we’ve been hearing the Good News from the Gospel of John this year, and John makes much of this metaphor.

If you haven’t been with me, however, not to fret: the metaphor is easy enough: light and darkness.

In the Gospel of John, darkness especially represents confusion; and light, clarity.

Think back to Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman, the man born blind, and Lazarus. All experienced a time of confused, muddled darkness. And all came into a light of clarity, of greater understanding about who Jesus really is and how to respond to him. Even Nicodemus, who first came to Jesus in the middle of the night and then disappeared back into the darkness from which he came—even Nicodemus came into the light of the fading day in order to haul Jesus’ corpse from the cross to the tomb.

This association—darkness represents confusion and light clarity—is an easy enough one to make, even in our day and age when light is available 24/7. Things aren’t as easy to see in the darkness. We get lost more easily. We know this from personal experience. Ever been in a blackout?

This metaphor has framed our Lenten journey in the Gospel of John.

Lent is over now, yes. But we’re still in the Gospel of John.

And thus, despite a new liturgical season; despite a shift in focus from repentance to resurrection, today, with Mary Magdalene, this metaphor continues.

Who was Mary Magdalene?

Some say she was a prostitute. Ever heard that one? My guess is yes. Artists throughout the centuries have portrayed her that way. It’s a popular idea. There have been several “houses for fallen women” named after her, in Europe, England, and North America.

Or, how about this one: she was the secret wife of Jesus and the mother of his children? Dan Brown popularized this rumor in his books, including The Da Vinci Code. But it’s not just fast-paced literature. This story too, like the prostitute one, has been floating around for more than a millennium.

But the Bible never says either of these things. The prostitute rumor was started by a Pope, Gregory I, in the sixth century.

My personal opinion is that he didn’t like the idea of a woman receiving so much credit; and thus sought to discredit her.

And the secret wife story? It originates, probably, from an apocryphal gospel of the second- or third-century.

So, what does the Bible say?

The answer is, not much.

She is named as having been delivered by Jesus from seven demons. We don’t know more than that—what kinds of sins she committed because of the demons’ influence on her and so on, although this demonic oppression is the connection Gregory made to prostitution.

She may very well have been the Mary of Bethany, who is the sister of Martha and Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. If so—which I happen to believe—then she is also the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with that expensive perfume, called nard.

Delivered from seven demons. Maybe Lazarus’s sister. Maybe the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet.

And then there’s what we see today, this bit in the Gospel of John.

That’s it! That’s Mary Magdalene!

Oh, but what we see today is spectacular!

She comes to the tomb, while it is still dark, and finds it empty. This confuses her—as darkness is so often equated with confusion in the Gospel. So she runs to tell the disciples.

Her confusion is expanded in the narrative that follows. Two of the disciples, Peter and another, an unnamed disciple, race to the tomb and confirm what Mary has said. The body of their friend and leader is gone. Where he was laid, now there are only rags.

One of these two disciples believes, continuing the theme of hope seen in Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea; but the Evangelist is quick to point out that still they do not understand.

They’re still confused. They’re still in darkness. And in this state they return, like Nicodemus had done, into the darkness from which they came, shaking their heads.

But Mary stays.

And she stands there weeping.

And this time it is not the light of the sun that opens Mary’s understanding, but the white light of two angels. They speak to her, and as they do a voice behind her calls and—behold!—it is Jesus.

Mary Magdalene is the first person to see the resurrected Jesus. And in this sense, she is the first real convert to the Christian faith. Ever!

And, even more profound, she’s the first person, the only person thus far, Jesus entrusts with the Good News, the Gospel. She’s the one told by the resurrected Jesus himself to go and share the Good News that he is indeed risen from the dead.

It’s not Peter, into whose hands Jesus placed the keys to the kingdom.

It’s not John, that disciple whom Jesus loved, without whose Gospel we would be left with an incomplete Bible.

It’s not any of his male disciples—which frustrated the dickens out of Pope Gregory.

But it’s Mary Magdalene, a woman, out of whom Jesus cast seven demons. It’s Mary Magdalene, who anointed Jesus’ feet with a year’s wages out of simple gratitude. It’s Mary Magdalene, whose brother Lazarus was now raised from the dead to new life.

I wonder, what would have happened to the church if Mary had not gone and done what Jesus told her to do on that day so long ago? What if Mary just threw her hands in the air, shrugged her shoulders, and said, “I’ll just let one of the men handle it”?

Never mind! Mary Magdalene is and ever will be the Apostle to the Apostles.

(And Jesus is and ever will be a feminist!)

Light is connected to clarity in the Gospel of John. But if we’ve seen anything else this year during Lent, it’s that the Light of Christ is also a call to action.

Nicodemus comes by the fading light of day, in full view of a hostile world, to remove the body of Jesus from the cross and lay it in a grave.

The Samaritan Woman drops her water jar in the full light of midday to run and tell her friends and family the Good News.

The man born blind is made to see and immediately follows Jesus.

Lazarus hears Jesus’ voice and comes forth.

And Mary Magdalene, the Apostle to the Apostles, tells the disciples that Jesus is risen, alleluia.

By the new light of the Easter dawn, Mary acts.

And the world is a better place for it.

By the light of this Easter Day, you too have acted; for you are here.

Now let’s go out and continue to act; and make the world a better place for the sake of the risen Christ.

Alleluia. Alleluia.

Advertisements

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.