In the Hands of a Savior

In the Gospel of John chapter six Jesus and the disciples “cross to the far shore of the Sea”, perhaps to get away from the crowds. Yet, in the very next verse we learn that a great crowd followed Him. In fact, over five thousand people show up. Craig Barnes states the obvious. Crowds come with needs. Crowds make demands. This is something that preachers know all too well. The Gospel of John is a reminder from the start that crowds can be needy. They need more wine. They need a sign. They need their children to be healed. Crowds come with needs.

Barnes likes to bring our attention to the subtext. For example, to make John chapter four about race relations or a woman who can’t seem to hang onto a husband is an attempt to make the text safe for us. Instead, John may want us to realize that we can try many things multiple times and in multiple ways – and still, it will not be enough. Barnes wants us to work with the text as if the congregation is always looking over our shoulder asking where they are in the story. That job did not give you renewed sense of purpose. That car did not grant you meaning. That vacation you are planning will not provide salvation. Nor will your next attempt, or the next, or the next… I think you get the point.

And in chapter six, Jesus looks up only to find another crowd. A hungry crowd. He then turns to Philip “Where are we to buy bread, so that these may eat?” We do not know why Jesus asks Philip (Barnes says this is like calling on the B team). No matter the reason, all Philip has are figures to say that six months wages would not be enough to feed this crowd. However, Andrew discovers a boy with bread and fish. One thing we know for certain, Philip and Andrew do not have enough. Yet, Jesus gives thanks.

We have probably never been caught in the dilemma to feed a crowd like this. Yet, we know all too well what it is like to try to figure out how to help others in need. We know when a situation seems impossible or when we only have a little bit to work with. What are we to do with the little bit that we have? Like in the Gospel, the crowds can be demanding. Like Philip and Andrew, we do not have enough. But, as in the Gospel, in the hands of Jesus – what we have is enough.

We sometimes get caught up in the miracle. We find ourselves asking “how did that happen?” John may only want us to know what we already know, it happened on account of Jesus. Barnes presents this text as a picture of preaching. A reminder that preaching is difficult. That preaching sometimes seems to be impossible. Other times, we just don’t have much to work with. Yet, the Gospel would encourage us to bring what we have. Bring our words to Jesus. In His hands, what we bring is enough.

We bring our words. Sometimes confidently, other times not. Words from us are never enough. Sometimes we bring our best efforts. Other times, not so much. But, Jesus takes what we bring. And He gives thanks. We recognize a hungry world, but also a Savior in the midst of it. And in His hands, our words are enough.

Preaching and a Changing Future

For the past three years I have had the good fortune to attend the Festival of Homiletics. There is great value in listening to excellent preachers handle the texts of scripture. Since this conference is geared toward mainline churches, some of the discussion is directed toward the mainline church. The mainline churches admit to significant decline in recent years, but the fact that so many respond to this trend in the church by focusing on the preached word leaves me with great hope for the church universal.

An interesting discussion that emerges at the festival is the attempt to address the changing culture. Culture is on the move. For a while, we have been talking about a shift from something we have come to know as modernity to something new that we have come to know as postmodernity. Lecturers attempt to address these changes and discuss what this means for the church in the future. Especially on what it means for preaching in the future.

There have been moments that it seemed the focus shifted outside the suggested emphasis. For example, there have been times that the conference sounded more like a platform for an assembly other than the church. More often, I have been challenged by the emphasis that God speaks through the preached word. Again, while I may not agree with all the discussion, I find great hope for the church. It is important for us to communicate Good News in whatever culture we find ourselves in.

Mostly, the Festival is a strong reminder that we must take the act of preaching seriously. That interpreting scripture is serious business. That the ways we choose to put words together should not be taken lightly. As Craig Barnes said this year, “do not waste words.” In the act of preaching, we offer a prophetic retelling of words given to us by God. Preachers like Walter Brueggemann and William Willimon demonstrated this effectively. Barbara Brown Taylor was described as a theological poet (and I can’t argue).

I love the emphasis on preaching and the attempt to place preaching into bigger categories. Yet, I am left with a lot of questions. While we cannot predict what changes the future will bring, what will preaching look like when we get there? Another presenter, Phyllis Tickle, talking about cultural trends, suggests that every five hundred years or so the church is forced into a rummage sale and decides what it will discard and what it will take into the future. This makes me wonder, what parts of preaching will remain with us?

This discussion will be ongoing. For the present, it appears that our task remains clear. We are the ones called to keep opening the book and retelling the story. And each time the book opens, it must be taken very seriously.

Sermon Crafting with Craig Barnes

At the Festival of Homiletics, Craig Barnes presented a list of sixteen points to consider when preparing a sermon. He reports that he decided to share these after receiving multiple e-mails asking him to list practical points to consider when preparing a sermon.

1)the preacher is maintaining God’s sacred conversation with the congregation. Barnes notes a rhythm in the way he prepares. Listen to word from God, then listen to the words of people. A rhythm develops. A conversation takes place. We want to weave holy words from the ordinary words we collect along the way.

2)preaching is more art than science. Instead of utilizing a certain method; read the text, develop a thesis, think of where the pastoral contact point might be, and think about the transforming purpose of the sermon. Art is imaginative. Art is interpretation.

3)get inside the text. The word of God for your congregation is in the sub-text. Do not assume that you know this text. People are asking, is there anything in there for me? Think of it as if people are looking over your shoulder wondering if they will show up in the story.

4)attend to the changes in your own voice. Pastoral theology is caught between how it is and how it ought to be.

5)teach yourself to be able to write more than one style of sermon. You do not want every sermon to sound the same.

6)sermons need to revolve around a big idea. Be clear about what this is. Keep coming back to the big idea.

7)preaching reveals! It does not simply tell what happened.

8)try to write a sermon in one setting. Barnes suggests this is something like holy ground. You do not start a sermon, break for a Seinfeld rerun and later return to finish.

9)edit. Make transitions smooth. Remove what does not support your big idea, even if it is your best line.

10)avoid linear arguments. Instead continually spiral back to the text.

11)write the sermon for the ear, not for the eye. Proclaimed word is different from written word.

12)congregations are full of visual learners, help them by developing verbal pictures.

13)be careful with illustrations. Instead, trust the power of the story. Use images, images work as verbal icons.

14)use different voices. First person allows for vulnerability. Second person singular may be the best. A sermon spoke only in third person makes it too safe. Sermons should not be safe.

15)take words seriously, do not throw them away. The way we put words together is serious stuff.

16)take steps to get as free from manuscript as possible. Barnes proposes that if you use a manuscript, try a detailed outline. If you use an outline, try to simplify it. You can do this, the sermon is in you.

If you read this list like I do, some parts are very affirming, others you may have little interest in. But the benefit of such a list from Craig Barnes is that it is helpful to see what goes through the mind of one who is skilled in sermon crafting during preparation.

The Festival of Homiletics

I am unable to remember all the high points from the recent Festival of Homiletics.  But I can offer a response to some of the more memorable moments that I hope not to forget. Here, follow some notes;

Walter Brueggemann inserts a story about himself into the episode of Naaman the leper in a way that listeners are able to hear as real.  He emphasizes repetition in the text.  He emphasizes silence in the text.  He spars with listeners.  He spars with the text.  For Brueggemann, theology and politic speak simultaneously.  He leans forward and places his hands on the pulpit in a way that makes it appear that listeners are fortunate the pulpit separates them from him.  He has an ability to take space once occupied with death and fill it with peace; as surely as Elisha grants peace to Naaman.  He grants the activity of God priority over other activity in the text.  Hearing Brueggemann, we know that we are unable to grant gifts to ourselves, at least not the gifts that matter.  And we realize that the world is transformed in our preaching ministry, one leper at a time.

Lillian Daniel spoke about preaching in a narcissistic society.  In this culture, even preachers must fight against feelings of inadequacy, jealousy, lack of feedback, and lack of exposure.  It may not be easy to preach in a narcissistic society.  But, this faith is bigger than we are.  We do not write the script.  This faith calls us out of our own idolatry.  Daniel calls for substance.  She calls us to choose this piece of turf based in a long-standing tradition.  Our tradition is bigger than we are.  God has invented us, it is not the other way around.  Daniel wonders about people who think that ancient religion is dull but self is fascinating.  She calls this mindset out as boring.  The spiritual but not religious are the majority.  And she issues the challenge to us to preach in ways that expand their perspective.

John Bell says that when we have just one picture of someone we may assume that we know them.  Yet, we can only know one well when we know many of their faces.  How do we choose to describe God?  We should describe God as creator but also as the laughter-maker and the wrestler.  Bell says that Jesus was crucified because he did not match the one narrow picture of God that the experts had in mind.

Craig Barnes urges preachers to practice congregational exegesis.  To be diligent to find the congregation in the text.  Brooding and staring become sermon preparation.  Wondering about how one came to have lung cancer.  Wondering why another decided upon suicide.  Wondering what causes others to become difficult parishioners.  These things are as much preparation as reading a commentary.  These are sacred conversations.  A mix of ordinary words and sacred words.  The sermon should be a spiraling conversation between us and the text.  People should see themselves in the text.  What appears to be negative space can be redeemed.  Barnes says that preaching cannot become content with misery, death, nor tomb – Jesus does not like tombs.  He stands outside Lazarus’s tomb and does not stay in his own for long.  Socially acceptable ways to cope are not the same as hope and should not be confused with maturity.  Others have known what to do with lament.  Lament should become prayer.

Nadia Bolz-Weber is not what you first expect.  She is listed as a leading voice in the emerging church movement.  She claims to be a native of culture.  Instead, she comes across as a preacher saturated in liturgy and steeped in tradition.  But, she does openly shed parts of the tradition that she does not consider to be core to the Gospel.  Bolz-Weber preaches a dangerous God.  An untamed Holy Spirit.  She stresses that Spirit is not a metaphor.  Instead, the Spirit is the reason for “Pente-chaos”.  She claims that she herself was invaded by the grace of God.  Yet, she remains certain of God’s love, even when unworthy.  Bolz-Weber is clever.  She realizes that she can be offensive, but claims it is not intentional.  She is edgy.  She uses language that would have caused your mother to wash your mouth out with soap.  She causes people to laugh.  She causes people to be shocked.  Preaching is not maintenance.  Instead, it is like wrestling the text and not stopping until the congregation is able to receive a blessing.