Archive for Preaching

Not a Table Manners Manifesto

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on August 28, 2016 by timtrue

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Luke 14:1, 7-14

What’s the purpose of preaching?  Why do I stand before you, Sunday after Sunday, offering my reflections on and interpretation of the Word of God?  Is it simply to instruct?

So, here’s what happens when the purpose of preaching is simply to instruct.  The preacher generally gets to a point in the sermon where he or she says something like, “People, we’ve got problems.”

And our problems are whatever happens to have risen to the surface in the text.  We sin.  We despair.  We fear.  We don’t love our neighbor as we ought.  We don’t love God as we ought.  We hold grudges.  We aren’t as good in our discipleship as we should be.  We over-consume.  We ignore God’s mystery in our lives.  We condone injustice by allowing it to happen.  We whatever.  Are you with me?

And you sit there listening to the preacher go on and on about it all, and you think, “Yep, he’s nailed it.  That’s exactly what I do.”  And because we’ve read out of the Old Testament earlier in the service, you’re thinking, “And it’s exactly what people like me have been doing for thousands of years.”

And so the preacher goes on to explain how doing (or not doing) these ungodly actions harms you and all those around you and reinforces certain social conditions that end up harming all humanity.

And then, finally, the preacher provides answers, methods, or marching orders, telling you how then to live.  We preachers want to solve all the world’s problems and wrap up our solutions in nice, neat packages.

But here’s the problem.

You hear a preacher offer didactic instruction like this and you end up thinking, “Yep, she’s nailed it.  That’s what I do all right.  But, hey, I’m not Mother Theresa.  I’m just a guy like everyone else around me, kind of dysfunctional, just trying to live my life and have a little fun along the way.”

And your response to the preacher’s nice, neat package is something along the lines of, “Well, that sounds noble and all, but, c’mon, I can’t really do that”; or, “Hey, now, preacher, you’re taking it a little too far”; or, my favorite, “What in the world is he talking about?”

Now, have you noticed that Jesus very seldom offers instruction; that he rarely teaches didactically?  Instead, he tells parables, a kind of story laden with rich imagery; and he demonstrates life lessons through healings and miracles.

Rather than instruct, then, doesn’t Jesus instead disrupt?  He provokes his hearers to see things in new ways through imagery; and he evokes emotional responses.  He teaches not by instruction; but by disruption.

We preachers would do well to take note.

But then we come to today’s Gospel.  At our first hearing—and maybe at our second, third, fourth, and beyond—this reading sounds more like didactic instruction on table etiquette than it does a parable.  “When you are invited to a wedding banquet,” Jesus says, “do not sit down at the place of honor.”

Jesus is at a banquet.  People are entering and selfishly grabbing seats of honor.  Jesus seizes the moment and teaches.  “But when you are invited,” he continues, “go and sit down at the lowest place.”

This sure sounds like didactic instruction to me!

Yet, Luke tells us, his readers, that Jesus is telling a parable here—an image-laden story designed to provoke and evoke, not to instruct.

So could something more be going on here?  Is Jesus addressing something other than only the selfish manners he sees in front of him?  Could it be that he is seizing the moment at hand not to teach didactically but, rather, provocatively?

This was a meal on the Sabbath, the text tells us.  Yet Jesus says, “When you are invited to a wedding banquet.”

Hmm.  Not a Sabbath meal; but a wedding banquet.  This is a disconnection.

Does this disconnection provoke us?  Do Jesus’ words, which seem a little detached, evoke some kind of imagery for us?  Do we maybe come across wedding banquets elsewhere in the scriptures?

And so we begin to piece it together.  Jesus almost always teaches by disruption, not instruction.  Striking imagery is taking place right in front of Jesus’ face: at this Sabbath meal, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors are selfishly grabbing for the places of honor.  Noticeably absent from this Sabbath meal are the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.  Also absent from this meal, we should note, as was the custom of the day, are women.

No: this doesn’t look anything like a wedding feast.  And besides, what kind of wedding feast in wealthy Palestine would include the poor, crippled, lame, and blind?  Or, perhaps a better question to ask is, where would we find a wedding feast that includes the poor, crippled, lame, and blind?

Contrary to what some scholars argue, Jesus is not offering here a table manners manifesto.  Rather, like he does seemingly everywhere else in the Gospels, Jesus is seizing the imagery right in front of him not to instruct but to disrupt; not to explain but to provoke.

In this particular case he paints a picture of his kingdom, the realm of God.  Except he uses the imagery in front of him to paint a picture of exactly what God’s realm is not.

There’s a lot of silliness going on before his face just now.  Brothers, relatives, friends, rich neighbors, business associates, maybe some patrons and clients, are all clamoring to grab for themselves a seat of honor.  They’re all clamoring to get ahead, to put themselves first.

And why, exactly?  So they will be noticed?  So they can sit next to someone who will be noticed?

We do this too.  It’s not just that crowd sitting around Jesus at that Sabbath meal.  And it’s not something found just in that day, time, and culture—something that those Romans struggled with but, hey, we’ve evolved.  No: self-centeredness, pushiness, greed, desire to be on top, getting ahead at someone else’s expense—these ambitions are part of the human condition.

We do these things all the time.  Just look around us!

How many CEOs got to their positions by acts of selflessness, or by being humble?

How many politicians can you name that exemplify the personality traits expressed in the beatitudes: blessed are the meek; blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; blessed are the merciful; blessed are the pure in heart; blessed are the peacemakers?

How many lawsuits, I wonder, are won by the people who actually deserve to win—from an ethical standpoint?

Nice guys finish last, the saying goes—for good reason.  We might as well just say, pushy people get their way.

And we shrug our shoulders and get on with life, saying to ourselves comforting aphorisms: “It is what it is.  It’s just the way things are.”

But why, exactly?  What is it in me that tells me I’m more important than any other person on the face of the planet?

I don’t know.  But it all seems kind of silly, doesn’t it?

Using provocative imagery, then, Jesus disrupts this Sabbath meal to make his point.  His kingdom isn’t anything like this silliness going on in front of his face.  In fact, his kingdom is the opposite.

In his realm, people don’t push and shove to be first, to grab honors for themselves, to get ahead of everyone else in the world.  In his realm it’s the forgotten people, the social outcasts, who sit in the places of honor at wedding banquets.

God’s realm is upside-down from the earthly realm.  Which leads me to wonder: maybe it’s the earthly realm that’s upside-down; and God’s realm is the one that’s right-side up.

So, let’s return now to my opening question: what’s the purpose of preaching?

Many people maintain that the purpose of preaching—why I stand up here before you Sunday after Sunday—is simply to instruct, or at least mostly to instruct.  Well, instruction happens, no doubt about it.  But it’s not the main purpose.  I hope I’ve effectively debunked this idea.

Jesus seldom instructed his hearers in a didactic way.  Rather, he most often disrupted them: their world, their common way of thinking.  We see this in today’s passage—and nearly everywhere else in the Gospels.

But is this the main purpose of preaching?  To disrupt?  Do I stand before you week after week mainly to call into question whatever I’ve seen you do or heard you say in the past week?  I don’t think so.  For that would make me a very contrary preacher.  And in short order I wouldn’t have many friends, let alone parishioners.

No, there’s more to it.  Why does Jesus teach by disruption?

His world wasn’t all too different from ours.  All around us, social conventions and institutions (yes, including religious institutions) prevent us from seeing things the way they really are.  Our earthly realm prevents us from seeing the greater reality of God’s realm.

And we get set in our ways.  We do things over and over the same way.  We get used to it all and say, “It is what it is.  This is just the way things are.”

And so, when you come to church and hear a preacher offer instruction about what’s wrong with your world and how you should fix it, you agree.  But you are also hardwired to go right back to the way you’ve always done things.  The preacher’s instruction doesn’t “stick.”

But disruption is more effective.  Disruption involves provocative imagery.  Disruption provokes you out of your comfort zone, your routine, much more effectively than straightforward didactic instruction.

But then what?  Once Jesus has effectively provoked his hearers; once Jesus has clapped them freshly awake out of their half-asleep stupor and they are suddenly aware of the greater reality of God’s realm, what does he do then?

He doesn’t give them a method or some kind of list for self-improvement.  He doesn’t give marching orders.  He doesn’t give them easy answers to be wrapped up in a nice, neat package.

Instead, Jesus most often leaves his hearers right where he’s taken them: to ponder his parables without any explanation at all.

Do you see?  Through disruption Jesus provokes his hearers out of a lesser reality into a greater reality, where he then leaves them to experience this greater reality; to draw their own conclusions; to wrap up their own not-so-nice, not-so-neat packages.  This is the preacher’s purpose.  Liberation!

Dear Christians, the lesser reality of this world holds you no longer.  You have been set free.  Experience the greater reality that is God’s realm.

2015 Lent 9

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , on February 27, 2015 by timtrue

Deuteronomy 10:12-22

Nevertheless, I press on.

I may not be an Old Testament scholar.  I dabble in the Old Testament–this Lent, for example.  But I’m not a scholar.

Given the choice between studying Greek (the language of much of the New Testament) and Hebrew, it’s a no-brainer: Greek every time.

And given the choice between Greek and Latin, incidentally, it’s Latin.  But Greek is also something I make time for.

Not Hebrew though.  I feel too removed.  Unlike Greek and Latin, Hebrew seems too far out on the fringes to be worth my while.  There’s only so much time in the day, after all; and I’ve got a wife and kids; and a dog; and I want to keep up with my music and motorcycle habits.  Etc.

That said, the book of Deuteronomy is mostly a long sermon.  That’s where we find ourselves today: in the middle of a sermon, Moses’ farewell address to the people he has led, the people he’s loved and hated, for the past forty years.  Surely I can learn something from this!

So I press on with my scheme to offer a devotional commentary on the Old Testament passages from the daily office lectionary in the 1979 BCP during Lent this year.

And today makes this struggle worth it!  For today, in the middle of Moses’ farewell address, we find this theological gem:

“for your own well-being.”

Moses has been incessantly hammering his message into the hearts and minds of the people Israel.  “Hear, O Israel,” he begins, back in chapter 6, “the LORD your God is one.”  And he exhorts the people to teach their children when they rise up and sit down and all that.  Before long, however, he turns negative.  Remember all those times you disobeyed, he admonishes.  Practically ad infinitum!  Until the hearers (and the readers today!) have had enough already.  Okay, Moses, you’ve proved your point.  Stop being so critical already!

Then, suddenly, abruptly, ah, this gem!  Like a cloud lifting after a thunderous storm–even if only for a brief moment–Moses gives a refreshing, glorious reason for all his haranguing rationale.  It’s for your own good.

Following God has a purpose.  Good should result at the societal level; and good should result at the individual level.  In terms of the New Testament, we are being increasingly transformed from our fallen image of Adam into the perfect image of Christ.

Thanks for the reminder, Moses.

So I continue my study of the Old Testament.  And, while I hope never to preach like Moses, with an excessive focus on the negative, I never want to forget that my end as a preacher and as a follower of Christ is to equip my hearers to grow in their faith, to become more like Christ’s perfect image, into which we’re supposed to be being transformed, individually and societally.

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.

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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.

Remembering Edward Pusey

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on September 28, 2014 by timtrue

Dear Reader,

Each Thursday my church celebrates a Eucharist at 12:15pm.  It is simple.  There is no music and the sermon is short, something like five minutes.  The whole thing takes about a half hour, intentionally designed for people to participate during their lunch break, including (but not limited to) the teachers at our day school.

For subject matter we turn to an Episcopal publication called Holy Women, Holy Men, which acknowledges (as the title implies) saints to remember throughout the year.  Last time this service fell to me it was a day to remember Edward Pusey, a nineteenth-century Brit (1800-82).

I don’t usually publish my sermons for this service.  Since they are only five minutes (roughly) and usually more historical in nature than theological, I always preach without notes; and usually from memory, meaning I don’t write anything down by way of notes.  Last week, however, I did write something down.  I wasn’t as familiar with Pusey as I usually am with these Thursday saints and I was impressed by his story.  I didn’t want to leave anything important out, in other words.

Anyway, since I spent the time to write it down (in bulleted outline), I’m now publishing it to my blog–for posterity if for no other reason.  But if you do happen upon this post, I hope you find it helpful.

-Tim

Pusey

I Peter 2:19-23

Today’s passage from I Peter very much encapsulates the life and works of Edward Pusey, the acknowledged leader of the Oxford Movement of the 19th century.

  • He endured unjust suffering, of a sort, for the sake of honoring God;
  • Christ suffered too, for our sake;
  • When abused, he did not return abuse; when suffering, he did not threaten; but entrusted himself to God;
  • Pusey followed this example, as should we.

Specifically targeted was Pusey’s preaching:

  • A scholar, he typically delivered his sermons at Christ Church, Oxford, often to a university audience;
  • An excellent preacher: catholic in resonance; evangelical in winsomeness;
  • The preaching his sermon, “The Entire Absolution of the Penitent,” is now understood to be the chief catalyst in the revival of private confession in the Anglican Communion.
  • But upon hearing another one of his sermons, “The Holy Eucharist, a Comfort to the Penitent,” his more influential superiors condemned the work and suspended him from preaching for two years:
  • It suggested Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist;
  • It seemed “dangerously innovative.”

But, like Christ, he bore his unjust suffering patiently; and, as I mentioned already, is understood today to be the leader of the Oxford Movement.

May we have similar resolve: to accomplish with integrity the tasks God gives us; and to endure with patience whatever suffering might come.

Why Audit Apuleius?

Posted in Rationale with tags , , , , , , on November 15, 2013 by timtrue
English: San Marino (California), Huntington L...

English: San Marino (California), Huntington Library. editio princeps of Apuleius, Metamorphoses.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been confronted by a question several times since I began serving as a priest in San Antonio, TX.  “Tim,” someone asks, “why are you auditing a Latin course?” or some similar variation.  Perhaps those who ask think that a priest at a large parish should be too busy for such leisure.  Perhaps they don’t see a connection between what I do (or what they think I should be doing) and the Latin language.  Or perhaps it’s narrower: perhaps the subject matter of the course itself doesn’t seem to fit.  In any event, I have my reasons.  I’ll even offer a few below, after an explanation of the course.

I, along with a professor and ten students, am working my way through translating (from Latin to English) Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, a work more commonly known as The Golden Ass.  The story itself is racy (as is a Google search of the title), about a young man on an adventure that would make Martin Scorsese blush, whose insatiable curiosity for magic transforms him into a donkey.  This is still early on in the tale; so for much of what remains we readers see things unfold through an animal’s eyes–an animal whose appetites for food and sex are even larger than he’d thought possible as a human; but an animal who is nevertheless guileless in contrast to the scheming humans around him–robbers, slaves, even some good ol’ commonfolk–as all animals are, apparently (according to author Apuleius).  In the end the protagonist, Lucius, is transformed back into a man by Isis, whom he then devotes his life to serving and worshiping as the savior of his soul.

So, why study, analyze, and translate this, eh hem, colorful work?

First, as surprising as it may sound, I hope to improve my preaching by it.  Have you ever analyzed a classic work of literature closely?  Then you know how florid and alive–how much more fun–the vocabulary and syntax can be.  Surely this sort of exercise will help anyone desiring to improve communication skills, whether written or spoken.  Add to this the complexity of translating a classic work from another language.  Translating requires you to consider carefully, ponderingly, which of several possible options best convey the subtleties of meaning the author intended.  So the translation itself ends up being something of an interpretation.  This entire process closely aligns to the process of reading a passage of scripture, analyzing it, digesting it, and designing a sermon from it to be presented to a congregation in spoken form, to be received and (hopefully) understood through the hearers’ ears.

Psyche et L'Amour (Psyche and Amor). William-A...

Speaking of which, The Golden Ass was written to be heard, not read; to be received through the ears, not the eyes.  This distinction is paramount for the preacher, for we humans speak differently than we write; and thus we hear a public speaker or a friend in animated conversation much differently than a person simply reading a manuscript.  Studying The Golden Ass with this aural perspective is not the same therefore as studying, say, a Dickens novel.

Moreover Apuleius vividly tells the myth of Cupid and Psyche through the character of an old woman whose job it was to console a kidnapped girl.  The amazing thing here is that, though the myth originated hundreds of years before, Apuleius’s version is the earliest known written recording of the myth; and thus much of the sculpture and art from the Renaissance drew from Apuleius’s version.  C. S. Lewis relies heavily on Apuleius in fact in his retelling of the myth through the eyes of Psyche in Till We Have Faces.  Anyway, Apuleius has a great deal to offer the aspiring rhetorician.

A second reason I am auditing the class has to do with a linguistic connection to Augustine, who incidentally is the person that coined the common title The Golden Ass.  It works like this.  Prior to taking this class, my Latin experience was almost entirely caught between Julius Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul (ca. 50 BCE) to Statius’s Thebaid (ca. 90 CE).  To jump from then to ca. 400, when Augustine was writing and preaching regularly, is something of a quantum leap in the language, from the classical world to the medieval really.  Just try to read an English book written in 1700 or so and you get the idea.  Languages evolve.  So, Apuleius bridges the gap for me nicely, having been published in the latter half of the second century.  Maybe now I’m ready for Augustine’s Latin, a character from whom I ought to be able to learn a thing or two about preaching.

Preaching like Augustine?

Preaching like Augustine?

Third then, and this is really a bigger reason than the particular work in question, more of an answer to why I study Latin at all: Latin is play for me.  Yeah, play.  To ask me the question “Why Latin?” is like asking a baseball fan why he likes the sport, or like asking a violinist why she likes music.  How do you answer that?  It’s something that gets my blood flowing, so to speak.  But it’s more, precisely in that it is not work.  When we work, we’re after something quantifiable, something we can look back upon and feel as if we’ve accomplished a thing or two.  But play is not like this.  Engaging in play, we don’t worry about what we’re doing, producing, or accomplishing.  We simply engage in it and enjoy the moment.  That’s Latin for me.  That’s baseball for others, music for others still (myself included).  That too, incidentally, is a picture of worship, wherein we enter God’s house to become lost in a transcendent moment.

In the end, then, there really is no need to explain my asinine fixation with Latin.