2008-05-21 by Luke Bouman
At this point in my preparation for next Sunday’s texts I find myself asking questions about the whole concept of “worry” that is the center of today’s text. I wonder if it isn’t more helpful to think about this in terms of older translations that use the word “anxious” here. We can read a lot about anxiety in the “self help” sections of bookstores these days, but I’m not particularly a big fan of “self help” sermons, or of “pop psychology” in my sermons for that matter. That said, I will dip a little into my research of “family systems” dynamics to comment about anxiety here. For people who care to read more about this, Peter Steinke’s little book, “How Your Church Family Works” (Alban, 1993) has a nice section of helpful material.
The first thing I always have to remember is that anxiety itself is not bad. It is part of our natural response system to threat or danger. It activates our body chemistry to enable us to fight or flee when threatened. As such it is a part of God’s creation that should not simply become the victim of holy condemnation based on this passage. According to Steinke, the difficulty begins when our natural response system begins to fire when there is no threat around us. When anxiety fires off inside us without threat, it poses a long term threat to health (part of the response of our bodies shuts down aspects of our immune system). When this happens on a regular basis everything becomes a crisis. Relationships are also compromised.
Another consequence for the continually anxious person is that choices are narrowed. Anxiety reduces many choices to “either/or” options and increases the tendency for people to divide into opposing camps, making conflict more likely. Creativity is minimized without the ability to see more options, and finally, growth, personal and communal is stunted. I could go on, but I hope this gives people a taste of how anxiety and anxious presences within our lives will function.
The consequence of this for preaching on our lessons for today is that there are some kinds of anxiety that, when they work as they should, actually spur us to action. But chronic anxiety will not only waste our time and energy, but actually contribute to immature behavior. I have come to think of this kind of wasteful anxiety when I read texts like this week’s. When societies become regressed or “stuck” in a way of thinking that leads to conflict, wars, walls, famine, etc., I think that one of the things we must come to grips with is our failure to trust and our decent into chronic anxiety as a whole society. We must also, I think, see this chronic anxiety as more than a problem for us to solve. It is a bondage, or at least a part of the bondage that keeps humanity at enmity with one another and with God.
Of course, I will likely mention little of this in my sermon. What I will want to ask as I prepare are some tough questions. Among them might be: How have I experienced chronic anxiety in my own life, in my congregation, in my family, in society? How has this impacted my ability to preach creatively, to minister effectively, to shepherd my flock? How does God’s grace, both in providence and as redeemer liberate me from the “bondage” of my anxiety? How is this liberation more than just coming to “understanding” but an actual release from bondage and worry? What especially does God’s presence, and the way that God is creatively present, have to do with my liberation from this bondage? How does this text from Matthew 6 reveal God as just this kind of liberating presence? How does this liberation happen not only for me as a person but also for community and society? What promises does God offer to keep me from further anxiety when this liberation doesn’t happen in my time frame or my expected pattern?
Finally, as I start to move from the thought process to the writing process, what experiences, what stories, what moves might be necessary for this sermon to become an engaging and liberating experience of the provident and redeeming God? How do I get myself out of the way of this God engaging the people in an eventful way while I am preaching? (As if I needed one more thing to be anxious about!)
Minneapolis, Day 2
2008-05-20 by David von Schlichten
This morning, Tuesday, Anna Carter Florence stressed that preachers must empathize with the text, let the text strip them, kill them, and resurrect them. Then, the preacher is to proclaim that experience to the congregation.
Luke Bouman's blog entry below, with its questions and its exploring of how the Matthew passage connects with daily suffering, can push us closer to following Dr. Florence's wisdom.
Although I am not preaching this Sunday, I will probably write a sermon anyway. I am allowing the idea in Matthew 6 of not worrying to turn me over and over. "Do not worry." Yeah, right. That's certainly easier said than done. Luke Bouman's reflections are indeed helpful regarding this exhortation not to worry.
Straining toward empathy, I am
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
Luke Bouman; Minneapolis
2008-05-19 by David von Schlichten
Luke Bouman, our guest blogger this week, has already provided us with a nourishing and evocative blog entry that you will want to chew and ponder. Please scroll down and enjoy.
I just registered at the Festival of Homiletics here in Minneapolis, where it is chilly and sporadically pluvial. My shy self wandered mute yet smiling among the hundreds of people at registration.
I am excited about tonight's offerings, which will include a concert by the National Lutheran Choir, a sermon by Anna Carter Florence, and a lecture by Tom Long. I am feeling star-struck.
I am also feeling hungry, so I am off to hunt and gather, always
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
Questions for Monday
2008-05-19 by Luke Bouman
I am pretty sure that my sermons are not about giving people answers. More often than not, my sermons are about pointing people toward God, who doesn’t always give us answers either. Take this week’s Gospel text, Matthew 6:24-34, for example. It doesn’t provide us with a whole lot of answers. It leaves me with a whole lot of questions.
Don’t worry, says the text, especially concerning the daily needs that we all have. God will provide. Immediately my mind starts to ask questions. How does God provide? Manna in the wilderness was a long time ago, so what is God doing lately. What about those people who do not seem to have their clothing or food needs met? What is God doing for them? What are our obligations in this whole process, beyond not worrying? What does it mean to strive for the kingdom of God? What is it? How does one strive for it? Certainly one could ask these or a thousand other questions based on this simple Gospel text.
More pointed homiletical questions might include my favorite: “What is God doing, according to this text?” I like to ask, though it is a dangerous question. It is dangerous because most of us are tempted to answer this question based on our expectations of God rather than on what God is actually up to. Still, it is a good question, since, if we can actually get to the bottom of it, this question will supply us with real good news. By asking earnestly we might get eventually to promises or actions that are trustworthy and lead us, as the community of faith today, to see God present and active and trust that God still works for us.
In this particular text, it is so easy for a preacher to focus on the topic of our worry, rather than on God’s action to promote faith in us. While it is ultimately important to get to this exhortation, it is not the place where I want to start thinking about this particular text. Instead, I find it oddly helpful to ask, sincerely, what action God is taking, and what promises God makes in order to lead to a trusting and faithful response by God’s people.
In this particular text, the promise seems to be that God will care for creation. This implies a God who is not absent or distant but rather a God who is invested in the creation. Upon further investigation we find a link, at least in the Old Testament, between redeemer and provider in both the Exodus story and the "return from exile" narrative, as seen in our first lesson for next Sunday in Isaiah 49:8-16a. The promise of a provident God is made against the backdrop of these stories for a reason in Matthew. Jesus is repeating the pattern. The people are being rescued again, gathered around a mountain again (today’s Gospel comes from the Sermon on the Mount), and they are being instructed in Torah again, just as they were in the Exodus story. In a later section of the Gospel Jesus feeds the five thousand. Here we have the promise that they need not worry about what they eat fulfilled in concrete action.
Finally, in response to this crucial Monday question, “what is God up to?” the answer lies in the understanding that God is not distant but present with us. Later in Matthew we find out in fact that when we hunger God hungers, when we thirst God thirsts, when we are naked God also suffers nakedness, and indeed does all of those things on the cross. It is not in fact in the promise that we will always have food or clothing that Jesus makes any point at all about God’s providence as creator and redeemer. Instead, Jesus encourages us to find that God’s reign and God’s providence are not connected to these things about which we regularly worry. How we are called to respond to God’s presence is then part of the answer to question of what God is up to. We respond not with worry, even in the lack of things, which people both ancient and modern will always suffer, but with faith. When we trust that God provides, then we are free to give to others, and so to participate in God’s reign as part of God’s means of providence. When we trust that God is with us and suffers with us, we are likely to see, even the lack of things not as occasions for worry, but as reminders that God is with us, even when we feel most alone and needy.
Of course this way of thinking runs counter to our cultural understanding that if you don’t have what you need, God must not be with you. But I find the image of the present and crucified God much more comforting than the image of the “holy dispensary” God. However, I still find myself needing to guard against complacency in all of this. The understanding of a God who suffers with us is not proclaimed in such a way that we become resigned to suffering, either for ourselves or others. It is to awaken us to the radical way in which God addresses the suffering, the hunger, the nakedness of the world. God’s righteousness and God’s justice, after all, are part of the kingdom seeking that we do. It overcomes our world’s injustice by entering into it and redeeming it from the inside out.
This Week's Guest Blogger, Luke Bouman
2008-05-19 by Luke Bouman
Rev. Dr. Luke Bouman, a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is the Director of Church Relations for Valparaiso University and is a frequent guest preacher in the Chapel of the Resurrection on Campus. He has been a regular English contributor to the sermon resource website of the University of Goettingen in Germany since 2003. He has also written “Preaching Helps” for the journal “Currents in Theology and Mission.”
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