Craig Barnes on Getting the Demon Out

Craig Barnes is a highlight of the Festival of Homiletics. This year, he preached a sermon and presented a lecture. His sermon text was Mark 9.14-29 and his title “Getting the Demon Out.” Here are some things that came up during his sermon.

-texts about demons tend to make us nervous The only thing that may make us more nervous are people who enjoy reading about demons.

-whatever your thoughts about demons, let us agree there is something evil out there and it cripples people.

-nine of the disciples become engaged in an argument about getting a demon out of a young boy. They are likely feeling powerless and embarrassed. That often leads people to arguments.

-we want to do something in situations like this. When we cannot, there is good news, we can bring people to Jesus.

-Jesus appears to be tolerant of doubt. Barnes contrast this with fear, he tends to make a strong statement about fear.

-Barnes asks the question, why stay with the church? He answers “because that’s where I go to find Jesus.” He knows Jesus can be found in other places as well but he also knows the church is Jesus’ plan for the world.

-while the demon possessed boy is convulsing, rolling around on the ground, foaming at the mouth, Jesus appears to be conducting a medical examination “how long has this been happening to him?” Barnes notes that Jesus is never in a hurry and asks, can we move so slowly? Jesus knows healing may take time.

-we too must settle in for the long haul. Join with a faith that has been honed over time by belief and doubt. We want a faith that has been hammered out by centuries of saints, something that lasts.

-Barnes is reminded that in another gospel Jesus will ask “are you going to leave me too?” And the disciples will answer “where would we go?” This is not a statement of strong belief. And then, following the resurrection some continued to doubt. Again, not a statement of strong belief. Still, they worship. That is all we can do, we can go to Jesus.

-when perplexed by our inability to get the demon out, when we become defensive and argumentative, when we feel powerless and embarrassed about what we are not able to do – there is good news, we can bring people to Jesus.

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Brueggemann, Solomon, and Jesus

Walter Brueggemann enjoys pairing an Old Testament text with a New Testament text during a sermon. And I enjoy when he does it. That is what he did this week at the Festival of Homiletics. Brueggemann paired I Kings 4.20-28; 9.15-19 and Luke 12.13-31 and talked about “Meat, Anxiety and Injustice.”

After reading the I Kings 4 text he emphasizes the large amount of goods Solomon has access to. It is a fact that Solomon has plenty. When we read the text we see that is an understatement. Solomon has an overabundance. Brueggemann calls Solomon the great carnivore.

“Solomon’s daily provisions were thirty cors of the finest flour and sixty cors of meal,  ten head of stall-fed cattle, twenty of pasture-fed cattle and a hundred sheep and goats, as well as deer, gazelles, roebucks and choice fowl… Solomon had four thousand stalls for chariot horses, and twelve thousand horses… The district governors, each in his month, supplied provisions for King Solomon and all who came to the king’s table. They saw to it that nothing was lacking. They also brought to the proper place their quotas of barley and straw for the chariot horses and the other horses.”

Yet, he did not have enough to satisfy. When we arrive at I Kings 9 King Solomon continues to accumulate more. After reading the gospel text, he highlights Jesus’s words about greed. Jesus gives an imperative (Luke 12.15), this is followed by a story (Luke 12.16ff.). Brueggemann adds this is a story that might be reminiscent of Solomon. It is foolish to think more is better. It is foolish to think more will keep one safe. It is foolish to tear down barns and build bigger barns in order to accumulate more.

Brueggemann goes on to say that more is an illusion. The “more system” intends to keep us busy wanting more. Not even the great King Solomon could accumulate enough. Desiring more only enslaves us to a regime of anxiety.

In a statement of contrast, the gospel tells us the creatures know better. They know hibernation and migration. They do not sow or reap, “they have no storeroom or barn, and yet God feeds them.” People are the only ones who do not seem to know. People are the only ones who think more is better. All this creates is anxiety and all this anxiety does not add even a nanosecond to our lives.

Brueggemann, who loves to discuss justice, then adds “when anxious and greedy, we are unable to do justice.”

Walter Brueggemann

The influence of Walter Brueggemann on preaching has continually increased since Finally Comes the Poet was released in 1989. There are many reasons I enjoy his preaching. Among them, I like the way he challenges the powers that be with the word of the Lord. It puts me to mind of John the Baptizer calling out Herod Antipas. When he steps into the pulpit, it just feels like he is there to challenge Pharaoh’s Egypt and its lingering effects. I like that he proposes use of the Old Testament in ways that perhaps are overdue.

Yet, while challenging the powers on some level, he sometimes seems to snuggle up with other political powers. There are times Brueggemann comes across as some imaginative hybrid of Karl Barth and Karl Marx. I enjoy him most when he comes across as a descendant of the prophet Jeremiah.

I think he would agree that he draws from the social sciences, political theories, and the arts to feed his theological imagination. These, at the very least, provide him with some language for his theological proclamation. You do not have to listen to him too many times to realize he wants to prompt thought about economic and political concerns. While none of us would dispute the bible’s interest in such things in its quest for justice, one wonders if Brueggemann tends to overplay their significance as the bible’s primary mission. I can’t help but think he sometimes starts with an ecclesial analysis but winds up with a social-cultural analysis and am left thinking whether he thinks the two are the same.

Brueggemann makes a point to move beyond the historical critical methods of study. Though he may not cast it aside altogether, he does see it as a method born in modernity. Nevertheless, in our wiser moments we will recognize that it should not be the only tool in our hermeneutical toolbox.

Instead, Brueggemann proposes methods that utilize sociological criticism and rhetorical criticism. He claims to prefer these because they make hermeneutics more democratic, “In contrast to older methods that encouraged a kind of expert consciousness.” By encouraging newer approaches “everyone can look at the text and see something.” Indeed, Ben Witherington fears this turns exegesis into something like a Rorschach test where one can simply ask what can be found in the ink blots. We can all admit a danger if we get to tell biblical authors what their text means.

His attempt at hermeneutical correction may go too far. It is dangerous to separate the text from its historical context. Without such a context, the bible becomes a floating document full of phrases suitable for wall hangings and pleasant platitudes but no longer a record grounded in the historical intervention of God.

Due to tendencies to silence the Old Testament, Brueggemann claims to take an ecclesial agenda to the text rather than a Christological agenda. While we might want to applaud his efforts to make sure the Old Testament is heard, he has been accused of avoiding any Christian readings of the Old Testament. If this is true, we may wish to ask him what he thinks of a biblical metanarrative.

Of interest during this conversation, in an examination of postmodern hermeneutics, Brevard Childs uses Brueggemann as exhibit A. He shares a concern that Brueggemann sometimes confuses the human imagination with the Holy Spirit.

I suspect some are unable to see any value Brueggemann brings to the pulpit because of his potentially dangerous hermeneutics. I suspect others will consider me too critical and remind me that Brueggemann has forgotten more than I will ever know. Nevertheless, I consider him one of the most influential preachers of our lifetime. And I look forward to hearing him again later this month at the Festival of Homiletics in Washington, D. C. The theme for the conference is “Preaching and Politics” and quite frankly, I am rather excited about what Brueggemann will bring to the pulpit there.

Ministry in the Asylum

Walter Brueggemann is convinced that culture drives people to insanity. He is equally convinced that preachers are those who get to tell this culture that there is another way, another place. That is how the Festival of Homiletics began this year with Brueggemann preaching a sermon titled “Ministry in the Asylum.” He suggested that this is our assignment.

He read an Old Testament lesson from Daniel 4 where we find King Nebuchadnezzar reigning in world power Babylon. He was “at ease” in his house and “flourishing” in the palace. It was then that the king had a dream. The dream has him troubled. He sought out a Jewish therapist who told him that he was not sovereign.

Brueggemann suggests that by day, Nebuchadnezzar was convinced that he ruled the world. At night come words of sanity, when it is obvious that he is not in control. Yet, the king disregards those words and the text says that “he began eating grass like cattle, and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair had grown like eagles’ feathers and his nails like birds’ claws.”

He goes on to read a New Testament lesson from Luke 15 and highlights that one there “came to his senses.” But only after “he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating.” This one comes back home to where he belongs. Sanity is one’s true home.

Nebuchadnezzar also returned to reason and sang a doxology. Brueggemann wants to make sure that we know that he does this only after he hears the essence of Torah. After he is reminded that Heaven rules. After being reminded to do righteousness and to show mercy to the poor. Both Daniel 4 and Luke 15 provide acts of sanity. One sings doxology, the other dances at his homecoming. Preachers are to call people from the asylum to become a missional people rejoicing.

Brueggemann cautions against being pulled into the insanity of culture ourselves. We must check regularly to determine whether we need our haircut or our nails trimmed. And all the while calling people to another way, another place.

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.