A Softball Question From Our Moderator.
2009-10-07 by Matthew Flemming
Thank you for your kind words. I am really enjoying participating in the blog. Thank you for having me.
Just in case anyone does not realize I was joking in calling your question a softball, let me just say that this is a profound question about who our God is and how God engages us when we seek to be faithful. It is just the kind of question that we should be preaching about. I always sense a hunger in congregations for pastors to address deep and meaningful questions. It does not mean that we always need to have all of the answers but taking seriously the issues of faith that people wrestle with demonstrates a profound trust in God and each other. It also models for people an approach to bringing all of ourselves to God even when that includes doubt or anger. This is crucial in creating space for people to grow in their faith. In my own preaching, I have found that when I am humble in addressing the difficult issues of God, that God has enabled me to “sin boldly” in the pulpit in ways that were of great benefit to the church. Often the conversations with congregants after I have wrestled (or perhaps the better term is flailed) with difficult questions is far more meaningful than the sermon I delivered. But it would not have been possible without a sermon to begin the conversation.
Enough prologue. On to the question…
When God blesses the faithful in scripture the blessing is always wed to a deeper experience of the presence of God. Even in those times in the Old Testament when material riches (land, wealth, etc) are granted to the faithful, it is always seen as a physical manifestation of the blessing of God’s presence to Israel. The greatest fear of the writers of the Old Testament is that God will withdraw (“Take not thy Holy Spirit from me”). You see this as well in the New Testament, first the disciples and then the church as a whole (on Pentecost) are given the Holy Spirit to lead and empower their ministry. Yet, at the same time, there are repeatedly declarations in the Gospels and the epistles that faithfulness will be met by persecution. How can we understand how these two seemingly contrasting facts (God’s presence and persecution) hold together. Or as David put it, “Where’s the promised abundance?”.
At the root of this issue is the most difficult of questions: “Why evil?”. On one level, this question is unanswerable. The existence of evil demands a great deal of faith as it seems so pointless and unnecessary for our God to allow such a thing. You can count on me being at the front of the line when it comes time to ask God: “Why?”. That said, God seems to demand such faith from us. One of my favorite preachers is Scott Black Johnston of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York. Scott once wrote a deeply moving sermon on God’s response to Job (Job 38-40:2) where he cast God’s answer to Job as an affirmation of God’s love for every inch of creation. I had often read that text as basically God saying: “I am God and you are not so be quiet!” but in Scott’s reading is was God describing his loving engagement with the entire world as if to say, “If I show such care for every cloud, bear and ox, how could you doubt my love for you?”. Now this is not an answer to the question of why evil occurs and as such it can be intellectually unsatisfying. But I think that it is true to life and it provides a profound meditation on the difficult nature of the faith that God requires of us.
When Peter (or Jesus or Paul) states that the faithful will be blessed abundantly, I do not believe that he is talking about a blessing that somehow occurs elsewhere while we remain in the mire of the world. As I said in my post yesterday, the division between the spiritual and the material is a false dichotomy. The God of the Bible is not an otherworldly being. Scripture conveys a story of a God who continually chooses to be for and with us, who claims and loves all of creation. As in the scriptural narratives we preach, the abundance of God is a greater awareness and engagement with the presence of God in the world. There will be times when that presence is followed by material gain; there are times when it is not.
One of the finest teachers I ever had was a New Testament scholar named Donald Juel. His reading of scripture lead him to believe that the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus was that God did not demand the death of Jesus as appeasement. But that Jesus, death was inevitability in a fallen, sinful world because the a world could not bear the presence of such abundant love and therefore had to destroy it. Juel believed that the resurrection was the destruction of that power and the victory of God’s love. Jesus’ experience with suffering and death did not mean that God’s abundance was not present in his life. Many of you will recognize that this week’s passage from Psalm 22 contains the final words of Christ on the cross: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me”. Like the Psalm, the Gospel testifies that God did not abandon God’s servant to death. Many of us proclaim a creed that states that Christ descended into hell. Whatever your image of hell, the fact that God resurrected Christ from there demonstrates that there is no place in creation that is beyond the abundant love of God. As the body of Christ, the church continues to reveal that love to the world.
This does not mean that persecution will fade away. If you read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, you are able to bear witness to a remarkable faith during a period of persecution that only ended with Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom. Yet, his writings swell with the experience of God’s abundance, here and now, in Bonhoeffer’s life. By the time that Bonhoeffer was executed, not only where other witnesses worshipping with him, but his guards as well. This does not pardon evil but it does demonstrate that its power was broken in Bonhoeffer’s life; both in the experience of suffering and the fear of death.
As preachers, communicating this reality is one of our most important tasks. I find that I cannot preach enough about the presence of God with us in the world and the resurrection of Christ. Not because God’s presence and resurrection provide people a ticket out of this world but because they are evidence of continuation of God’s abundant presence and the growth of our engagement with God that suffering and death cannot hinder or destroy. Which is why, like Paul, I believe that: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Scripture tells us that such abundance occurs in this world. I think many of God’s disciples can witness to the fact that they have experienced this reward in a literal way even if their lives have not always been easy.
Ask Matthew a Question; "Lectionary Homiletics" Highlight
2009-10-07 by David von Schlichten
Matthew Flemming, our guest blogger, invites you to ask him a question about this week's lessons. You can read an answer to a submitted question below. I, also, have submitted a question and am looking forward to Matt's response.
Lectionary Homiletics Highlight:
"Exegesis": Jennifer Knust does a sharp job of explicating the socio-eonomic context of the gospel, which is especially germane to understanding the passage. Jennifer also explains text variants, such as the replacing of "camel" with "rope" to soften the hyperbole. In general, she does an intelligent job of highlighting the radicality of the text and the painful reality of poverty and persecution for Mark's original readers.
Grab your hermeneutical rubber ducky and dive into the tub!
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
A Question from a Colleague in Ohio
2009-10-07 by Matthew Flemming
Aaron from Ohio has been the pastor of a rural congregation for the past four years. He is leaving to accept another call soon and wrote in to ask if I have any suggestions as he prepares for his last sermon.
When my wife and I graduated seminary she took a two point charge in a rural congregation in New Jersey. She loved those churches. They were enormously important in her formation as a minister. In subsequent years I have met many pastors who had similar experiences. There are a lot of small churches who see the training and uplifting of young pastors as part of their ministry. Many others fulfill this calling unconsciously but also bless the lives of the ministers who pass through their pulpit. I am sure that your first four years in the ministry have been filled with joy and struggle but, in this context, more important than any individual event is the growth you have experienced in your first call. The most significant thing that you can do in your final sermon is to honor your church for what they have done for you.
I am a big believer in the lectionary but there are times when it is appropriate to find a scripture that gives voice to the movement of God in the church on our own. This is one of those times. Find a text that can name what God has done in your church. Allow it to shape your telling of the story of your community and how they have ministered to you. Share what it has been like to minister to them. If there are congregants who have been a source of conflict, try and prayerfully discern how you can speak the truth in their presence without settling scores. Some things are best left to God. Frankly, silence is usually the best option in such situations. Given that the pastoral bond that enable people to hear a prophetic word will soon end, it is unlikely that people could hear a difficult word in love.
Whatever the state of your church, they are the body of Christ. Remind them of that; show them how they embody the Gospel. I am sure that you are excited about your next call but, if you are like most people, you will grieve the end of your first pastorate. It will always be special to you. Tell them that. I think that a final sermon in a church should be less about saying that perfect last word and more about gratitude and love for the ministry you have shared as well as hope for the ministry that will continue when you move on. One of the great reassurances God gives to pastors through scripture and church history is the knowledge that the Spirit will continue to move in your congregation after you leave; just as it moved before and during your pastorate.
Congratulations on the beginning of a new era in your ministry. May God bless you and those whose lives are touched by your faithful service to the church.
(Note: When you ask a question, let me know if I may post your question verbatim. If not, when I answer, I will rephrase it in a way that hides the details of your situation in order to protect confidentiality.)
Leading the church into the Text.
2009-10-06 by Matthew Flemming
There are weeks when lectionary texts seem to soar to heaven. Weeks when we are able to point to scripture and proclaim the promises of God fulfilled. Weeks when we are able to preach about healing, and new life and the joy of new found hope in God’s church. This is not one of those weeks. Our texts for Proper 23 (28), October 11, 2009 are filled with tension and anxiety. Our scriptures from the Old Testament express the pleading of the suffering faithful seeking to the presence of God to while our New Testament texts ask profound questions about the nature of God and our salvation. As we decide what texts to preach this week, let us begin by attempting to prayerfully discern which text gives voice to God’s claim on our congregation at this moment in time.
Both Job and the Psalmists offer the lament of those who seek to maintain their relationship with God amidst their pain while not giving into the temptation that their struggles are always the product of their own sin. Often when we look out upon the wreckage of the world we are able to point to sinful deeds or the fallen systems we inhabit. Although the sermons that arise from this witness contain their own challenges, the ability to name cause and effect within a crisis provides an avenue to name what is happening in the life of our congregation. This assists the church in giving itself over to God enter into the hope that God’s grace will heal our brokenness. However, there are times when the mathematics of cause and effect do not add up. We serve congregants whose spouse has come home and told them that the life they built no longer matters enough to them to save; that they are leaving for someone else or the idea of someone else. There are congregants whose children are diagnosed with cancer or fall into the grip of drugs or are killed in a car accident. What do we say to those for whom justice has become a foreign concept? What do we say to those whose righteousness seems not to have any currency with God?
Of course we know from scripture that rain falls on the righteous and unrighteous. We know from scripture and the theology of our church (whatever church that may be) that our faithfulness is meant to be a response to God’s grace rather than a quid quo pro that is meant to be rewarded with an easy life. However, such moments rarely call for meditations on the nature of divine justice. Instead they call for sermons which embody people’s desperate desire to stand in the presence of God and communicate their grief and confusion. As in the case of Job, these are moments of great faithfulness. People are rejecting the temptation to turn away from God. Instead they choose to live in the hope that God will hear their pleas and respond. If we are preaching to congregants whose relationship with God in some way mirrors what is voiced in one of our Biblical texts, it is important to begin with the acknowledgement that we are engaging something sacred. When we proclaim the Word to people who are struggling in the darkness of an experience of God’s absence we are not only pointing to the presence of God which they may not be able to see or offering a prayer that they cannot pray at this time. We are also affirming the reality of their struggle, its difficulty and its pain.
Scripture consistently pushes against a separation of the material and the spiritual. Although, in our society, we can spend much of our lives defying this vision of reality by dividing our lives into discrete and manageable segments, when we are thrown into crisis these seemingly distinct parts of our lives come crashing together.
One of the blessings of my job is that I am able to travel to different parts of the country to serve churches or communities of pastors by preaching or sharing my academic work. Wherever I have gone this year there has been a palpable sense of anxiety present. Mostly this is due to the economy but there are other sources as well. Those that serve in military communities have watched their loved ones come and go for nearly seven years. Many denominations continue to be consumed by painful disputes and the possibility of schism. Others feel betrayed by Wall Street or the government or the state of politics or the media or…or…or.
Whatever the state of our individual congregation, we are faced with the potential of sinking into a malaise of disillusionment. At these moments the church desperately needs its preachers. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together that disillusionment can be a blessing because it destroys a harmful idealism that substitutes daydreams for the dirty and difficult reality of living in community with one another. Bonhoeffer believed that: “Through disillusionment we begin to be what we should be in God’s sight and begin to grasp in faith the promise that is given to the church.” Preachers are given the task of holding up scripture and proclaiming the image of the world that is visable through that lens. We have the responsibility of offering God's claim upon that world through the promises of God present in the Biblical text.
When people lose their jobs or are wounded by illness or loss, the resultant crisis is not merely material or physical it is spiritual. Often it is the destruction of the narrative to which they have dedicated their lives be it a vision of the “American Dream” or a vision of God that is no longer sustainable. When we proclaim the promise of God into this void we have three tasks. The first is to name the disillusionment present. The second is to proclaim scripture as an alternative story. The third is to practice what we preach by becoming a church that embodies the Word we proclaim.
These are difficult tasks. They are certainly beyond the reach of our wisdom and the power of our rhetoric. As preachers what we have is the Biblical text and the connection to the lives of our congregants born out of the completion of our pastoral tasks week after week. One of the great challenges for preachers is to trust that speaks through these sources.
Sitting here in north Georgia, I cannot tell you what to say to your congregation. But I can encourage you to trust God and your calling as you prepare your sermon this week. As you select your text think through how each one gives voice to what God is doing in the life of your church. What does each text name about your current circumstances? How does the langue of scripture shape how you understand what is going on in the life of your congregation. At that point, stand boldly in the midst of scripture and let the text name the anxiety or grief among you. In conversation with the theology of your church, let the struggles expressed in your pericope point to the promise and vision of God communicated by scripture. Let them provide a model of faithfulness during times of struggle for your church to follow.
Trust that you are capable of completing the task ahead. The Word you proclaim this week cannot be spoken by anyone else. Whether it is the right Word for next week or next year does not matter, it is what God is saying to your church at this time, in this place. Whatever the outcome, through the work of the Holy Spirit what you proclaim will be enough. May God bless you as you serve the Church this week.
Our Week Together...
2009-10-05 by Matthew Flemming
My name is Matt Flemming. I teach preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia and I am this week’s blogger in the Homiletical Hot Tub. It is a joy to be able to (virtually) share in your sermon preparation this week. I am an avid reader of blogs. I find that the most effective blogs are those that foster a conversation among the community that engages the blog. I hope that we can produce such a conversation this week. I plan to be here until Sunday. If you have any comments, questions, or you simply feel stuck, please e-mail me FlemmingM@CTSnet.edu (OR USE THE SUBMIT A QUESTION LINK ABOVE), and I will respond as quickly as I can. Feel free to send any helpful comments that may help another sister or brother as they prepare to proclaim the Word this week. If there is enough interest, I will hold a live chat from 12:00-2:00 PM EST on Wednesday. What this means is that people can send in questions and I will respond immediately. It is a way to have a running dialogue and receive near instant feedback. Let me know if this sounds appealing. If there is enough response to sustain a chat then it will be a go.
Here is how I am going to structure the blog this week.
Monday: Discerning the Word—I will post some meditations on prayerfully engaging the text so that we can bring the life of our communities to God and attempt to discern God’s claim on our church this week.
Tuesday: Old Testament Text—We will engage the lectionary passages from the Old Testament with an eye for both the theology they communicate and any potential rough edges or speed bumps that may serve to anchor our proclamation.
Wednesday: New Testament Text—We will engage the lectionary passages from the New Testament in the same manner.
Thursday: Sermon Form and Structure—We will discuss different ways of writing a sermon with an eye for what various forms and structures communicate theologically.
Friday: What Did She Say?—Now that the sermon is written (at least in theory!) we will discuss the cohesiveness and coherence of the images and arguments in our preaching with an eye towards consistency and maintaining momentum throughout our proclamation.
Saturday: The Saturday Night Special—Any questions you may have as you try to put your sermon to bed in time for you to go to bed.
Sunday: Pray for the Presence of the Holy Spirit, Deliver the Word, then Rinse and Repeat –If anybody would like to discuss how things went and offer and questions or comments for the edification of other preachers then now is the time. I will need to hand the blog off by Sunday night so please try and send your final e-mail by early evening EST.
Before we dive in I want you to know that I am praying for you as you continue to serve God this week. The ministry is a wonderful but difficult calling. When times are tough, as they are for so many right now, our work can feel overwhelming. I pray that God will sustain you, wherever you may be: May the light of Christ and the fellowship of those who serve alongside you throughout the world break into the darkest corners of your life. It is an honor to serve you as you prepare your sermon. God bless.
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