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.

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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.