SERMONS TEXT

Rev. Dr. Sam Wells – Rector of St. Martin In The Fields in London, England

Luke 22.14-18

We live our lives by two stories. There’s the one we present on interview, when we want to impress people; and there’s the other one we tell only to a therapist, a confessor, or the most trusted friend. The church also lives its life by two stories. There’s the story of faith, courage, and martyrdom – sacrifice, and perfect love. That’s the story we call All Saints. And then there’s the story of fragility, fear, and failure – foolishness, and forgiveness. That’s the story we call All Souls.

Every Christian makes the same mistake. We all think God wants our posh story, our All Saints’ story. But the truth is, God wants the real story, the All Souls story. Being a Christian means longing to be a saint – but, in the meantime, offering to God the reality of our soul.

The title of Kate Atkinson’s 1995 novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, gives a clue to its theme. The novel’s a museum, because it’s full of memories, mostly about four generations of women in the family of the narrator, Ruby. But it’s behind the scenes, because, one by one, elements are reintroduced into the story that’ve been forgotten, denied, or suppressed. The plot rattles along through post-war British history on a hilarious rollercoaster, and you’re never sure if the intention is simply to evoke rib-tickling laughter. But that leaves you wholly undefended for the moment when suddenly, very near the end, the savage twist clasps you like a stomach cramp, and you’re gasping for air.

By this time Ruby’s a young adult. Piecing together stray remarks and inexplicable anomalies, she’s driven to rummage through the shoebox that contains her family’s most precious treasures. In the shoebox Ruby discovers the clue to her whole existence. She comes upon a birth certificate, and realizes she had a sister, Pearl. Not just a sister – a twin, born on the very same day as she, Ruby. She was born a twin. Ruby and Pearl. And there, to prove it, a locket, with a photo of the two sisters, one on each side. But then, a death certificate, dated four years later. Cause of death: drowning. The precious Pearl had drowned, aged just 4.

Ruby seeks out her mother. In dismay she yells, ‘You can’t just blot someone out like that. … You can’t pretend someone never existed, not talk about them, not look at photographs.’ Her mother replies, defensively, ‘There were photographs. And we did talk about her. It was you who blotted her out, not us.’ But Ruby’s outburst has unlocked a chamber in her mother’s soul. They open up the locket with the photos of the twins and look at it for a long time in silence. Ruby demands to know, ‘Which one? Which one is Pearl?’ Her mother points to the one on the left, and says, ‘My Pearl. My Pearl,’ and begins to weep.

Think of that locket for a moment. On the right is a picture of Ruby – the story Ruby thinks she knows, the story it’s easier for everyone to tell. And on the left is a picture of Pearl – the story full of regret, guilt, and grief, loss, and sadness – the story no one really wants to tell. Except Pearl, perhaps. And, deep down Ruby and her mother, desperately, achingly, wrenchingly – Ruby and her mother, who can’t truly tell any kind of story to one another until they’ve gone back and told a truthful story about Pearl; the fact that she lived, and the way she died.

Think of that locket as the two stories of the church – on the right All Saints, the story we want to tell, and on the left All Souls, the story of what took place behind the scenes, the story we’ve suppressed, forgotten, denied – but the story God knows, the story God remembers; and the story we have to learn how to tell if we’re to stand truthfully before God and be restored in our relationship with one another.

Our worship can only be genuine if it brings to mind the left-hand picture in that locket, naming some of the faces and hearing some of the voices our society and our church has tended to forget, tried to suppress, or sought to deny, and mindful of those memories and experiences in ourselves that, like Ruby, we’ve tried hard to bury behind the scenes in the museum of our own imagination.

Why are such voices integral to our worship? Because when we stand before the throne of grace, as a person, a society, or a church, we can only ask God to redeem what we bring with us. If we show God just the right hand side of the locket, if we try to tell God just an All Saints story, God will either laugh, or cry.

At the Last Supper Jesus took bread, and broke it, to represent the breaking of his body. And he said, ‘Do this, and remember me.’ Do this, he said, and re-member. That’s our hope. Not that our lives and memories and lockets aren’t broken. We know they are. But that we’ll be re-membered in God. That’s what resurrection is – God putting all our members back together, going behind the scenes, and literally re-membering us. And so to open our lives to the suppressed, the forgotten, and the denied members of our society and our church is to anticipate heaven, by the same process of re-membering.

The last chapter of Behind the Scenes at the Museum is called ‘Redemption.’ Ruby’s talking to her surviving sister, Patricia. Patricia’s trying to encourage her sister to move on. She says, ‘The past is what you leave behind in life, Ruby.’ Ruby’s having none of it. ‘Nonsense, Patricia,’ she retorts. ‘The past is what you take with you.’

And that’s the gospel. We’re on the left-hand side of God’s locket; but God doesn’t suppress us, deny us, forget us, or leave us behind. Broken as we are, God re-members us, and embraces us, and says, ‘I’m taking you with me.’

Rev. George “Tripp” Hudgins, Bogard Teaching Fellow at CDSP, Instructor in Homiletics and Liturgy

On October 24, 2005, the Barna Group released a study that showed “new forms of religious experience and expression are growing in popularity, drawing millions of people closer to God but farther away from involvement in a congregational church.” The brief article continues: “new ways of experiencing and expressing faith, such as threw house churches, marketplace ministries, and cyber churches, are becoming the norm for millions of people.” Though certainly not as balanced as other sociological reports from the same time, I have held onto this particular report because of the surprise and anxiety expressed by researchers invested in the present and future health of congregational Christianity. In 2005 the organization was attempting to help congregational leaders understand the sociological sea change that is American religious life. This included the impact of digital technology and social media. 

Of course, none of this was new in 2005. Various institutions and organizations were wrestling with the implications of digital technology and social media. Blown to Bits , a 2000 Harvard Business School publication, made much of the implications on marketing and communication. The authors wrote of the demise of the Encyclopedia Britannica as it was rapidly replaced by Wikipedia. If information was a kind of capital, its transmission across social media platforms completely disrupted the information marketplace. This was and still is no less true for traditional Christian communities. In fact, as I write, the Seventy-Ninth General Convention of the Episcopal Church is meeting in Austin, TX. I have been able to follow along with the proceedings and debate important issues on social media platforms each day. I have witnessed public addresses as well as sermons from the convention on these same platforms both via officially sanctioned social media feeds as well as through the work of individual participants present at the convention. 

Also on my desk is the third edition of Tom Long’s great book on preaching, The Witness of Preaching . Published in 2016, this primer for homiletics says almost nothing about the impact of digital and social media upon the practice of preaching. It is virtually ignored. I offer this not as a negative critique of the rightly admired scholar’s work but as an observation. Homiletics is homiletics whether the sermon be broadcast on closed circuit television, a live national broadcast from a stadium, or on a social media platform via smart phone. Long was under no obligation to change his text because of this radically transformative technology. Thorough exegesis, for example, is still important. That said, I desired to know what Long might be able to offer. If, as others have argued, sermons have become more conversational in their creation and in their presentation, does this change our theology of preaching? Does it change the nature of our exegetical work or our spiritual preparation? Perhaps using social media to prepare for ones sermon is a kind of spiritual practice of its own. Lastly, let’s not forget the theological implications of the sacramentality of preaching, its embodiment, and performance. Is an online sermon embodied? How so?

This brief essay is an exploration of “preaching online.” I will offer five brief examples of how preachers are using social media to prepare for, present, and share the preaching event. Some preachers simply share the text of their sermons. Some preachers share a video of their sermons after the fact. Some preachers “preach live” on social media and then post that video elsewhere. Some are preaching at a regular Sunday morning service. Some are preaching to “online churches” or, as Barna would have it, cyber churches. I will focus on style more than content except where the content is made possible by virtue of the nature of preaching on line. The preachers come from within and without the Episcopal Church. Thus, their theological concerns vary.

The Social Media Platform Sermon

In a sense, each of these sermons is a “social media platform sermon.” With this particular example, however, I want to use the broader definition because of how the homiletican utilizes her social media presence across platforms. This kind of sermon is preached in a normal worship service, but there is a component of sharing either before or after the experience that the preacher has of the event with their social media community. 

The Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney is a scholar of Old Testament at Brite Divinity School. She is also an Episcopal priest. She is a respected and well-known scholar and an excellent preacher. What Dr. Gafney does particularly well is utilize her media platform to amplify her voice, her presence as a leader in the church. Like so many other people who exist outside the white male mainstream in the Protestant mainline, she uses social media, specifically Facebook and Twitter, to share her work instead. 

For example, on April 15 of this year, she posted this brief reflection on her sermon from the same morning.
My sermon went well this morning. By well I mean I heard some meaningful responses from folk, white folk, who heard it as prophetic and is making them necessarily uncomfortable. I preached on white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and anti-Judaism — who says I don’t preach on the trinity. One man said he wanted to stand up and cheer at the end. I told him to do so next time, Episcopalians are too quiet.
The sermon was preached at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Worth. There were 24 comments and 189 people reacted to it with a “like” or some other response. The reactions came from those present at the liturgy including parishioners and clergy. This means that the conversation about her sermon continued long after people shook her hand to thank her for the challenging word or during coffee hour in the parish hall. Dr. Gafney’s Facebook posts regularly create such a response. Her sermons, specifically their subject matter, and her thoughts about the preaching moment generate much conversation well after the event itself is done. The link to the audio for the sermon was shared in the comments as well as on Dr. Gafney’s blog. 

There is a social media ripple effect to each preaching event. This is typical practice for Dr. Gafney and many other preachers. Dr. Gafney’s notoriety, however, makes this particular strategy quite effective. The benefit of extended conversation is clear as well. The spiritual revelation shared from the pulpit is not lost to the moment nor is the presence of the preacher lost to a listener who might want further conversation. And Dr. Gafney is almost always willing to engage in more thoughtful communication. This is essential to any preacher who wishes to share their sermons similarly. 

The Rev. David Hansen is pastor of Spirit of Joy! Lutheran Church in Woodlands, Texas. He also uses social media to amplify his voice. In particular, he shares his sermons via podcast. On June 4 of this year, he shared an astonishing (at least to him) bit of data. He is, apparently, “big in Japan.” The statistics from his previous ten podcasts indicated that 22% (187) of the downloads were from Tokyo, Japan. Thirty-five percent (304) were from Spring, Texas, and 12% (107) were from Ashburn, VA. Podcasting can be a surprising tool for sharing the Gospel. It is decidedly less social than Facebook or Twitter, but one never knows where such transmission can lead.
Social media is, in the end, social. One does oneself a huge disservice if one posts a sermon and then vanishes into the ether of social media. The entire purpose is to continue the conversation in hopes that further conversation might lead to transformation. Dr. Gafney does this very well and Rev. Hansen has been given an opportunity to discover to where the boundaries of his congregation actually extend.

The “Live From The Pulpit” Sermon

The Rev. Brian Merritt is a Presbyterian pastor and serves as the Interim Pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He records his sermons via Facebook Live. Just as he’s about to read the Gospel passage from the pulpit, he starts his broadcast. The camera (from a smartphone) is on the pulpit facing him. As he reads, he looks at the camera effectively making “eye-contact” with the viewers. As one watches him preach, he will do this from time to time. 

It is an interesting point of view. Rev. Merritt is wearing a preaching alb and a green stole in a recent video . His gaze goes out over the pulpit to the congregation, to the camera, and then to the manuscript he uses as he preaches. It is clear he is comfortable with the manuscript as he doesn’t rely on it overly much. Yet, it is still an unusual experience to note how his attention is divided three ways.
I asked him when he started doing this simultaneous social media feed when he preached. In conversation with me, he shared:
I had already been doing something similar when I was at Mercy Junction and at Renaissance. I was given a lot more freedom to experiment in those two places. Immanuel liked these online sermons and asked me to do them here. At Renaissance we tried to put [the camera] further [away], but it caused all kinds of issues with sound and viewing. The reason I put it there on the pulpit is twofold. First, I can look at the camera, plus I can also see some of the people who are watching and then I feel connected to them. I have had a few that have watched my sermons for about 3 years. Second, the location is not visible to the congregation in the sanctuary. I felt like if I put it on the side of the pulpit it would have been a distraction. 

We see here a couple of different concerns come to the fore. First, there are the simple logistics of where one places the camera. The camera becomes a kind of ritual object that one must take into account when crafting liturgy. Merritt worries that it becomes a distraction rather than an invisible means of broadcasting the sermon online. Second, he then must divide his attentions in thirds, if you will. Or at least, be aware that someone is sitting on the pulpit rather than in the pews. Preachers often need to make eye contact with people seated in various places in the nave or church. That’s not a new dynamic. But it might prove difficult at first to pay attention to people who are placed on the pulpit before you. Lastly, there is the added pastoral dimension that there are people who have been watching him and “following” him from place to place. The live broadcast begins on his personal Facebook page and then the video is saved to the church’s page. This makes sense as he personally has a larger reach than his congregation does at present. Much of his interim work is about revitalizing this particular congregation. It is unclear how he ministers to the people who follow him. But it is clear that some connection has been made as he expects to see them log on and intentionally makes “eye contact” with the camera to let them know that he sees them.
Merritt also shared:

“I also do sermon teaser the day before. I have not been inviting people as often to watch, but that always helps to post on Facebook ahead of the sermon. I have less viewers [here in Albuquerque] than in Chattanooga, but my sermons are a lot less Justice oriented here. Also a different time zone. I know for a fact that I have been able to reach some shut ins and retired clergy for services. That is one of the reasons I love doing it. “

Thus, we can see a broader strategy that employs the use of his personal social media platform as well as his congregations’. He has had to be aware of the shifting results depending on the needs of each community and adjust his own expectations accordingly. One community is revitalizing. Another community has an active social justice ministry for which Merritt had much passion. I, however, find his last comment most poignant. It is an act of love to share the sermons online. It is not a thoughtless act of cultural obedience or even the reluctant caving to the pressure to engage the technology because “that’s how we’ll get the young people.” Rather, making the sermons available online is something he loves to do and serves those who need it.

The Online Sermon for the Online Church

Both of these next instances are more typical of what we think of when we imagine “preaching online.” These next two preachers have served or are currently serving communities that meet primarily online. There is no corollary physical structure or gathering community. The geography of the “parish” is dispersed. It is wherever the parishioners are. As such, preaching to a specific congregation with specific needs is not always on the forefront of the minds of these two preachers. For these and other reasons, the very idea that these online addresses are considered sermons is problematic to some. 

Kimberly Laskowski was the Minister of Digital Community at Extravagance, UCC. Extravagance is located in Cleveland, Ohio. At the time of this sermon, Minister Laskowski was living in Florida. Digital community can, of course, be run from anywhere. During her tenure there, she hosted an online gathering called “Thin Space.” You can find one of their events online on Facebook. Live broadcasted and then posted on Facebook on May 31 of 2016, it is an excellent example of the kind of dialogical preaching available online.
Minister Laskowski is on a beach. It is night time. Several of her friends and family are gathered behind her. They are sitting in a circle on beach chairs and the like. Laskowski is facing the camera. She is dressed for the beach and not a traditional worship service. This evening she welcomes people who gather online. As they arrive, she encourages them to get comfortable, to silence other electronic devices, light a candle or dim the lights, and perhaps find something to drink like tea or something else soothing. They are to create their own sense of sacred space where they are to better connect to the kind of space she and her friends have created on the beach. This approach is highly individualized. Again and again, congregants are encouraged to do what most works for them. She mentions them by name as they say hello to one another via a chat application. “I’m so glad you’re here,” she says more than once. “Here” in this instance is within the online environment which includes all the geographic locations in which each participant resides. “Here” becomes an enormous conceptual space which includes both online and offline locations. 

This evening’s sermon is actually a lectio divina exercise. She leads the online group as well as the folks who are with her on the beach through a three-fold exercise with the Psalm 104. Congregants are encouraged to sit, to listen for the Holy Spirit, and to engage with her as well as one another in the chatroom. They are encouraged to share with one another and care for one another. The exercise and conversation lasts more than fifteen minutes. People are clearly engaged in chatting with one another as well as with Laskowski. After this “shared sermon” is ended, Laskowski asks if there are any prayer concerns. Those who have gathered online share their concerns and Laskowski closes their time together with an improvised pastoral prayer in response. 

The ministry is designed to serve those who have felt excluded from traditional church communities for some reason. As Laskowski identifies as a partnered lesbian and has been quite public about her struggles with her conservative upbringing on a Patheos blog as well as other venues online and offline, she has intentionally crafted a space with the assumption that those who come are dealing with a spiritual wound of some kind. Her careful and caring presence and her conversational preaching style are founded on this assumption.
The second example of this kind of preaching is Brook Louis Connor, an Episcopal layperson who lives in Berkeley, California. I first met Brook when he was a student in my Introduction to Homiletics class at Church Divinity School of the Pacific two years ago. He had cross registered from Pacific School of Religion. On the first day of class, I asked all the students what they hoped they would learn. He said that he already had an online preaching ministry and wanted to learn how to better preach online. That was what he was looking for from an Introduction to Homiletics class. Keeping his desire in mind, I tried to make sure to point out when I thought a particular insight shared in class would be helpful for him, but mostly, I found my own pedagogy lacking even though I myself have been preaching online via live feeds or a YouTube series for many years. Even I forgot to include preaching online in an introduction to homiletics. Surely, the ubiquity of the technology and the corresponding practices suggest that teaching something about the process of preaching online belongs in an introductory course. And yet, even I was stymied. Brook was only the first of several students who have asked me for such instruction over these last couple of years teaching homiletics. 

Brook’s own ministry is rather simple. He is training to be a spiritual director and has a website as well as a YouTube channel. He has been recording sermons and meditations and posting them online. Sometimes people comment. Sometimes they don’t. Unlike some of the other examples already examined here, Brook does not have an online community of his own from which to create a worshiping community. The others represent a kind of Christian technorati. Thus, they have followers. Brook’s own ministry is thus not as robust as the others. His preaching style is really rather simple. He sets up the camera on the kitchen table and sits down at the table to discuss the scriptures. His sermons are structured more like a personal journal entry than what one might consider traditional. He “vlogs,” or video blogs.

Conclusions

In such a brief essay as this, one can only begin to scratch the surface of what it means to preach online. What I have tried to do is offer the reader a handful of models that may hopefully prove to be helpful in beginning to understand more deeply what is actually happening in the lives of believers who offer these sermons as well as those who watch and listen to them. We have seen that preaching online affords certain opportunities that preaching from the traditional pulpit alone cannot. 

First, as we saw with Dr. Gafney, sermons can be generated and shared in such a way that the revelations therein are transmitted via a variety of platforms giving people who are oft on the outside of the white mainline mainstream an avenue to be heard and known. Second, and related, transmission is not controlled by the preacher, per se. People from all over the globe may download the sermon and engage with it in unknowable ways. Third, we saw how the practice can augment the preaching moment itself as with Rev. Merritt’s locating his camera right on the pulpit, live broadcasting, and then posting on the church’s Facebook page. Some online congregants have been following his preaching for some time. And, perhaps more interesting, the offline context does impact the online preaching in terms of content. Fourth, we saw through Laskowski’s ministry that the disparate geographic locations can be addressed in creative ways to better create sacred space for the individual and thus, for the collective. Fifth and lastly, we learned that some students Like Brook Louis Connor are coming to Introduction to Homiletics classes curious about how to preach online and assuming that they will learn something about the practice in class. There appears to be a need for instructors to become adept at the performative and technological aspects of such preaching.

Rt. Rev. Robert Wright, Bishop of Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta

This sermon was the opening address for a group assembled specifically to address Civil Discourse in America. Featuring members of the United States House of Representatives (both Republicans and Democrats) along with nationally recognized voices from The Episcopal Church, the conference was concerned with pivoting from our current milieu to a place of cooperation and collaboration.

Good evening! I’m delighted to be with you in this place and attending to this important topic, “Civil Discourse in America.” The question hanging over this conference is very specific, How do we follow Jesus given the thickening fog of incivility in our political discourse in our nation. Every sermon needs a biblical text. I choose that old standby. 1 Corinthians 1-13. “Though I speak in the tongues of men and of angels and have not love, I am as a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.” But it is the eleventh verse of that chapter that I want to emphasize. There Paul says, “…when I was a child, I thought as a child, I spoke as a child I understood as a child. But, when I became a man.” A woman. “I put away childish things.” What I think Paul is trying to say to his community then and to our community now, even our country is, grow up! This is important because youth comes but once but immaturity can last a life time! The heart of what I want to say tonight is very simple, by virtue of our baptism, we are different.

By the grace of God, we are growing up into the full stature of Christ. Daily. Hourly. Usually reluctantly. But nevertheless growing up. And if that is true, then when it comes to politics, we are trans-political! That is, we are in the world of politics, but we are not of the world of politics. We are in politics but bigger than politics. Especially the incivility of politics. Of course we should be an educated and active citizenry, but we are ultimately not defined by politics. The Apostle Paul put it this way, “…our citizenship is in heaven…..” I would remind us there is no Republican or Democratic section of heaven. Which is to say, growing up, if it means anything, means clarity about ultimate allegiance. Our first allegiance is to God as we understand God in the life, ministry, example, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Which is to say, despite the increasing complexity and velocity of modern life, we refuse to allow the corresponding bewilderment to drive us to the blasphemy of self-sufficiency or rank tribalism. You and I have been given and have accepted the high calling of partnership with God. And the substance of that partnership is to be demonstrating in the real, beautiful and broken world two things-just two things-the irreducibility of God and the irreducibility of neighbor. Our refreshed loyalty to these two tenants will break the adolescent appeal and power of loathing- loathing of the other and loathing of political opposition. Loyalty to God is a greater power than the loathing of opponent. What that means practically, even daily, is that you and I must do the interior work of purging from ourselves every residue of contempt. Contempt for other has become the new, practical, consensus building American ethos. Sadly contempt for other has deep roots in the history of our republic as a means to political and economic ends. But, it seems especially in the last couple of decades this phenomenon has found new zeal. It is a no brainer that this phenomenon has been supercharged by the rise of the 24hour, perpetually breaking news, sound bite, gotcha journalism culture we live in. And yes, both political parties participate in this. And yes, it predates the current administration.

The problem is pernicious because most of us consciously or unconsciously collude with the incivility of the status quo. The problem is, contempt for neighbor in any form- even polite southern contempt… bless your heart, is inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus. And, our maintenance of contempt in all its forms frustrates the working of God’s grace.

Given that this conversation is taking place in Lent, I suggest the taking on of a new spiritual discipline to fend off incivility. It is a spiritual discipline to acknowledge, repent and forsake contempt for neighbor in public and private conversations and thoughts. Even over your social media accounts. This is not about politically correct lips, that is beneath us. Our work is heart work. Civility is about the dignity of others and our commitment to the humility that seeks an abundant future for all of God’s children. This is about transformed hearts. This is about spiritual maturity at the local and cosmic level. When we grow up we remember, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood. We wrestle against powers and principalities.” What is necessary here is that you and I begin the slow and essential work of coughing up the asphyxiating mucous of contempt for one another. I can not make this point strongly enough or frequently enough. As Bishop of a Diocese that spans more than seventy-five counties in middle and north Georgia, I understand it to be part of my job to listen both Rachel Maddow and Rush Limbaugh. I listen to both because my diocese listens to one or the other. What I have learned is that both news sources share a spirit of contempt for the core constituency of the other. One version could be described as subtle and condescending. And the other unabashedly hostile and vile. But really it just depends on who you ask. Either way, both are trafficking in a substance more addictive than opioids, contempt. But when I listen to either Rush or Rachel I have found a new way to listen. I don’t listen as a partisan. I’m not listening for talking points. I listen as an ambassador. I listen as a translator. Again we remember Paul when he says, “I understand the law and order people. And I understand the people who are not under the law. I understand the weak. Because I know my own weaknesses. I take up this relational work so I can save some.” That is, so I can point people to things eternal. If we were to talk to Paul this evening he might say to us that there will be no progress in the community, no progress in the nation or the church until someone decides to be the grown up. Until someone decides to default to curiosity rather than always, always defensiveness. Until someone says eradication of the political opposition has no place in the American family.

But not only that. If we are to really defeat this demon called contempt for neighbor that spawns incivility in all things, we have to acknowledge it’s a three headed demon each with its own name. Contempt’s three heads are smallness, separateness and superiority. When Paul asks us to grow up. He understands love and immaturity. Love and smallness can’t co-exist. He doesn’t condemn our smallnesses but suggests that while smallness might be a starting point it mustn’t be an ending point for us. Smallness has to be confronted and converted.

Separateness is a global heresy that has historic and unique expressions in America. But sadly at the core of the idea of separateness there is a tragic lie. Sure there is a diversity of human experience, absolutely, but what guides us always is what is at the core, the center. The core is, the coal communities of West Virginia want what the so called ‘coastal elites’ want for their children, a hope and a future. We are not a human race. We are a human family.

This brings us to the notion of superiority. Contempt depends of this part perhaps the most. There is something that you and I are supposed to learn in the notion that Jesus is Lord of Lords and King of Kings and yet left his gated community called heaven to live among the day laborers and peasant class of Nazareth. Equality with God puts us beside one another. Not even Jesus is exempt from this idea. Our attainments, achievements, education and advancements in the Christian context are simply equipment to be harnessed for the common good. Superiority based on race has recently been dealt a death blow by the scientific community. There is this idea about the Mitochondrial Eve. She is the most recent common ancestor of all of humanity. We are inextricably linked. We are all Africans. What affects some affects all. All are children of the same God. Of one blood. DNA doesn’t lie.

If the year 1968 in America were to speak to us now, what would she say? She might say, you think you’re divided? Huh. What a bunch of amateurs! You remember that in 1968, the war in Vietnam was raging. The generations were divided about our presence in Southeast Asia. There was absolute chaos on college campuses. Martin was killed on a balcony in Memphis and Bobby was killed in kitchen in California. Not only that, President Johnson went on television to the great surprise of everyone and said that he would not seek nor would he accept the nomination of his party for re-election as President. Talk about chaos. With this grand and surprising gesture LBJ hoped to unite the country. He used the following words to frame his actions. “A house divided cannot stand.” Of course he borrowed those words from Jesus. But they ring true now. What LBJ might have also said to us in 1968 and what we might think of now is that not only can a divided house not stand, but neither can an adolescent nation flourish. New maturity must come forward from us if we are to continue this democratic experiment. America is a gangly, acned, clumsy idea as nations go. She is a youthful 242 years old. We have proof of this immaturity in our bi-nary decision making. We say either border security or DACA rather than secure borders and a path to citizenship for the most deserving. We say we desire a strong and ready military without seeing the role of a talented diplomatic corps in the equation for safety and peace. We argue that the second amendment is sacrosanct without seeing that common sense public safety legislation would refine the public’s sense of gun ownership and keep the 2nd amendment out the cross- hairs of its opponents. St. Paul’s says we must grow up in how we think and how we speak and how we understand. This was sage advice in his day and it still is so. Incivility has to be attacked in our hearts as we endeavor to attack in all the public places that it lives.

I got a recent remedial lesson on this from Ambassador Andrew Young who I am proud to call friend. As you know while Dr. King was preaching us into a more perfect union by telling us of his dream. It was Andy Young in cramped back rooms all over the country negotiating progress with all kinds of people. Prior to an event where he was to address school children about appreciating others, I was with him and a few others just chatting and catching up on current events. That’s where the growing up began again. He fussed at us about the constant personal attacks on our current President he had heard on the morning news. I could see the shock on peoples face. How could this civil rights icon take such a tone about this President? He went on to remind us that in no place in Dr. King’s work would we find a personal attack on any person or group opposing the work of civil rights. He said, you won’t even find a personal attack, or contempt for Bull Connor, of fire hoses and snarling dog fame. No personal attacks ever. Not even for Bull. He said, you see what you don’t understand is that our goal was not the annihilation of the opposition. Our goal was not the humiliation of the opposition. Our goal was transformation. Our goal was to leave room, even for the people we disagreed with the most, for them to retain their dignity. If our aim is to purge incivility from our politics. If our aim is to proclaim that we are an American family. Then our work must be to transform the soul of our nation. One encounter at a time. This has been done before. This can be done now with faith, hope and love, the greatest of these of course being love.

Commentary
Speaking about contemporary issues from the pulpit is dangerous business. Still, the preacher must not actively avoid contemporary issues at the risk of muzzling the Gospel. It sounds like an obvious point but the issue du jour must not be central to the sermon but rather the gospel must be the reason for the address. The biblical text must not be dragged kicking and screaming into a conversation about headlines. To be guilty of that practice is to erode the trust necessary between the preacher and the congregation and encumber learning and spiritual growth. Yet when the preacher sees clearly the contrast between the idea of biblical neighborliness and modern living that emerges organically and authentically in sermon preparation they are duty bound to offer the congregation that insight devoid of shame and judgement or politically taint. Always the invitation heard in the sermon needs to be, even when addressing contemporary issues, to a new expression of Christian maturity.

Rev. Kate Spelman, Rector at All Saints in Western Springs, IL

Easter Sunday

So…there’s a man who’s going to go rob a house. He’s a professional, see, and so he carefully stakes out a big nice house in a quiet little town. He watches all day, until the people he has seen go in and out come out all together, dressed up for a night out or a nice dinner. He knows they are all gone, and will be out for some time.

So the thief walks up to the house, and knocks –“Hello?” – no answer. He tries the door and, because this is a nice quiet town just like this one, he finds it unlocked. “Hello?” he call again, from the foyer. And this time he hears a voice from far away faintly say what sounds like “Shame on you – I see you, and Jesus sees you.”

He’s intrigued, but not really that scared, and so the thief walks down the hallway. Again, a voice says, “I see you, and Jesus sees you.”

The light in the back of the kitchen is on. Maybe, he thinks, there’s an invalid grandparent who’s been left behind as the family goes out for a nice night. He walks to the back of the kitchen and around the corner, and there he sees ….

… a parrot in a cage. The parrot looks at him and says, “I see you, and Jesus sees you.”

And the thief is not afraid. In fact, he smacks the side of the bird’s cage the tosses it from its perch. “you silly creature,” he says, “I’m not afraid of you.”

The bird, ruffled, gets up, and looks the man straight in the eye – “I see you, and Jesus sees you!” And then the bird looks behind the thief.

The thief turns, following the parrot’s gaze, just in time to see a giant, slobbering Doberman launch itself off the bottom of the back stairwell. “Sic ‘em, Jesus!” the parrot screams!

You like it? This was a joke told to me by a Roman Catholic priest in the middle of Lent.  And he, along with our local Methodist pastor, have been joking about it in a group text since then, in part because there’s nothing tired clergy need more at this point of the year than humor.

But Bill, my Roman Catholic stand-up friend did tell me that there’s a tradition in the church of telling a joke on Easter Sunday – because today is the day that God plays a divine joke on all of us!

Today, God plays the ultimate joke on death and evil – you may think you’ve won, God chuckles to herself, but have I got a punchline for you. Today, against all the forces of darkness and evil, God has the last laugh.

At the risk of exposing myself as the pompous jackass you all suspect me to be, let me say that my favorite book for many years now has been Moby Dick. I’ve read it now quite a few times, and each time it seems like a bit of a different story – that’s what great literature is, it’s something we can come back to again and again.

So, first time I read Moby Dick, It’s a about humanity’s fight with nature. Second time maybe it’s about evil versus good, a work of process theology. Third time – very boring book about whaling with way too much detail.

Now the fourth time I read Moby Dick, I knew it was coming, the beginning of chapter 49 really captured me. Here, Melville writes in the voice of his narrator, Ishmael:

There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.

I read Moby Dick again this winter, I let this this quote become the lens through which I read the entire book. I read it as Melville’s great big joke on me, the reader; Moby Dick as a parody of all the Great American Novel is supposed to be.

At the very least, reading Moby Dick as comedy makes it much more entertaining. Reading those long digressions on whaling practices in an ironic faux-scholarly tone makes them much more tolerable.

What I want to ask you to do today is to do the same with the Gospel.

Consider Easter – the very miracle of the resurrection – as a great joke. God’s parody of our expectations and fears.

I bet that the moment where Jesus revealed himself to Mary, she felt exactly like Melville’s Ishmael – that the whole of the world, the whole of her life, was one big long joke – and herself the butt of it.

And what joy must Mary have greeted her Lord – her friend – who was lost but now was found, who was dead but now was risen, who was gone forever but suddenly there in the flesh to show her – her – that God would get the last laugh.

I’d like to imagine the moment right before that moment too, the moment in the garden where the Holy Trinity are giggling together behind Mary’s back. They know just how shocked Mary will be when this silly gardener turns out to be none other than the beloved teacher she thought utterly gone.

God rubs her hands together because she is so tickled this all worked out so perfectly. The Holy Spirit throws an elbow into Jesus’s side (maybe the Christ winces, he’s still sore from that spear). Sic ‘em, Jesus, I can hear the Spirit saying – Go show her that there are no tears to be cried, unless they are tears of joy and mirth. 

That’s not a good joke –  That is a GREAT joke!

A great joke that God is playing on us – and on all the powers, principalities, and pharaohs of this world.

A joke played on death – and everything else – that pretends that is greater than God’s love for us. A joke played on doubt, and hurt, and sin – and all those thieving fears that make us wonder if God’s promises ever really will be fulfilled, or if anyone is ever coming back to save us.  A joke played on everything – – even our very worst selves – that would set itself up as if it could come between us and God.

Joke’s on us! April Fools!

Now you know a good joke takes time to develop. Maybe even three days in a tomb. A good joke holds us in suspense… we know that something is coming, but we don’t know when to expect it, or what form it will take. A good joke makes us chuckle – but a great joke … a great joke makes us reframe everything. We have to rethink the whole story that we just heard. We might even have to rethink the whole of our world!

A great joke makes us see everything differently, reconsider what we know. And that’s exactly what Easter should do. That’s what Easter can do, if we are willing to get in on the joke with Jesus.

There are so many times when this old world seems bleak and hopeless. Times when a knowing, dark humor is the very thing called for, the very thing that will save us from the pit of despair.

I’m talking about a good, clean, liberating laugh – a laugh that is tinged with relief. Not a laugh from a dirty pun or at someone else’s hurt. A laugh that comes from the world being exposed for just as silly, just as paper thin, as we have always suspected it to be.

I think that’s how Mary might have laughed – with joy, delight, relief – when she realized who she was speaking to in the Garden that day.

It’s a laugh God wills for us today – yes, even in church! Today you get to giggle, chortle, chuckle, even snort a little in church. Because today we celebrate that God chose what seems weak and foolish to us to be our source of strength, and the salvation of us all!

Joke’s on us – we are the fools!

May we all be fools for Christ.

For being fools for Christ means we recognize that the same sad story this old world tells us is merely the set-up to God’s most famous punchline –

Oh death, where is thy sting?

Oh tomb, where is your victory?

Those powers of death and sin – those thieves of joy and hope – are vanity of vanities, nothing more than God’s cosmic set-up.

Being fools for Christ may make us act in ways the world deems foolish: Loving more radically, more freely than any rational person would. Raising kids to value themselves for who they are and not what they do. Giving away our wealth instead of hoarding it. Turning the other cheek and being peacemakers in our homes and in our streets.

Fools for Christ will share, care, preach and teach in ways this old world is not ready for. And when they tell us “you can’t do that!” or, “that’s not how that works!”  We fools will just laugh to ourselves, and pray they someday get in on the joke too.

This day we should all be foolish – not just for April, but for Christ! For the resurrection is a brilliant, wonderful joke! A masterpiece of timing and upheaval that forces us to read the rest of the story differently.

So many thieves DO sneak in in the night. They wait until it is dark – when our defenses are down, when our best selves have gone out to dinner or taken the night off. So many thieves break in to steal what hope we have tried to shore up for ourselves. We have no power in ourselves to save ourselves, which means that we are entirely reliant on God’s grace and power – things that seem foolish entirely at first reading.

At times like that, it is as if we find ourselves alone in that dark tomb, not sure of how or whether we will make it out – and if so, what the point could even be. Beset by thieving doubt… by temptation… by evil… by fear – it would seem we are trapped in the same old story.

But suddenly there comes a voice  – I see you, and Jesus sees you.

And then the light bursts forth, with the luminosity of a thousand suns, and a voice seeming as if from heaven proclaims the words that will roll the stone away and set us free –

 Sic ‘em, Jesus!

Commentary

My perspective on sermon-writing was changed forever by a writing seminar, “Words that Sing II,” with professor Mary Nielsen at the Collegeville Institute. My greatest learning from Mary was a lesson in simplicity. How many metaphors could we use per work? Mary is a gentle Midwestern Lutheran soul, but her insistence on this topic was rock-solid and the fervor of her conviction makes her pound the table emphatically in my memory. ONE metaphor. You get ONE metaphor in a piece of writing,[1] even in a book-length work. For the purposes of this piece, I will use Mary’s definition of a metaphor as nearly any use of figurative language.

Stripping down to one metaphor is hard. This stripping-down also means eliminating “dead metaphors” from the sermon’s language. Dead metaphors are the patterns of speech that began as figurative language but are now so commonly used we rarely think of them as non-literal:  “He really warmed up to her.” “It all went swimmingly.” “This sermon is total crap.” Mary showed me how each of these could be replaced with a single, more direct word, saving precious time and word-count in a homily.

We’ve been using metaphors for generations and calling them sermon illustrations, because from the time of Augustine and his peers, preachers have recognized that the stories of a first century Jewish man work within a very different material world than we inhabit. Jesus never told a parable about a smart phone, or revealed the best way to be Christian in a dispute over the use of reply-all on an email chain. Chorazin might be full of jerks, but if you can’t tell me what exit it is off the turnpike, why would I care about their woe? In a way, every act of interpretation, and certainly every application of Biblical narrative to everyday life is a figurative use of language; a translation of sorts.

More urgently, in a post-modern, post-Biblical literacy, post-Christendom world, even words that were thought to be well understood need some figurative explication. I read that same book about a shepherd interpreting Psalm 23, but more of my congregation is familiar with Cesar Milan’s version of animal husbandry. What even do we mean by “grace” or “repentance”? What does it actually mean to forgive someone’s trespasses as they have forgiven ours?  

Jesus used plenty of metaphors in his own preaching. The parables are metaphors, as lengthy as some are. Indeed in their span, they demonstrate what I treasure most about figurative language – it can be spacious, generous in a way that invites listeners or readers to do some of their own work of interpretation and translation. A seemingly simple story creates an entire world of meaning – or really, worlds of meaning. All preachers have had the experience of having someone thank them whole-heartedly for something they are very sure they did not say. Perhaps none of us have been greeted by an estranged father with the promise of a fatted calf, but we can all reflect on what it would mean for the most fraught of our familial relationships to be resolved not only in reconciliation but in joy. So in a way, I did say that you should call your sister. (More accurately, the Spirit whispered it to you while my lips were moving.)

This sermon printed above is mine from this past Easter Sunday, which fell on April Fools’ Day. In it I make a very silly joke into a metaphor for the pinnacle of salvation history. This may be pushing the one-metaphor-rule, but I think it works on two levels – first, the understanding (which turns out to have quite a long history of orthodox theology behind it!) of the resurrection as God’s great joke on us all, and second, the joke itself functioning as a parable, a large-scale metaphor for what it can feel like to walk through Holy Week. As faithful as we want to be to Christ, and as secure as our lives may be, it should and does feel like a dangerous thing to participate in the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday liturgies. Have we left open doors that ought to be locked tight? Does the crucifixion challenge our faith in ways that Sunday cannot recover? Is our greatest treasure left vulnerable to the thieves who see Holy Saturday as a prime opportunity?  And who – or what – are those thieves, then? Suggesting some ideas, without pinning the audience down to one villain, invites people to fill in their own details. Like a well-rehearsed joke, we learn to tolerate, even enjoy the set-up because we know the arc of the story and remember the relief of the punchline.

This is by no means a perfect sermon. (I’m sure there are typos galore; that Melville bit doesn’t work too well and makes me sound like an ass.) But it is one that brought me great joy in the preaching and the writing of it. Somewhere in some preaching textbook I have on my shelf, a better preacher than me encourages us to preach sermons we are excited about. You should wake up on Sunday eager to share with the congregation what you have learned from or coaxed out of a text. And this is, finally, why I’ll continue to preach in metaphor all the days I have left in the pulpit – figurative language has the ability to push us to new and exciting places in interpretation and application. A comparison that has never been made can make a millennia-old text suddenly new again. A story that has never been preached from can make a weird-sounding prophecy suddenly compelling. And a sermon that is as fun to preach as this one is can make a believer out of even the most jaded of pastors, come Easter Sunday.

Of course, all rules are meant to be broken – or flouted, to borrow a term from linguistics – but only in order to make a greater point.

Rev. Dr. Stephen Smith, Rector at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Dublin, OH

Mark 10: 17-27

In the musical, Fiddler on the Roof, the main character is Tevya; a poor milk man trying to deal with all the cultural changes swirling around him.  Through it all he enters an on-going conversation with God. Very early on he launches into a song that asks why he couldn’t be rich a man, with maybe a small fortune.

By the last verse the song takes an interesting twist, as Tevya sings,

“If I were rich I’d have the time that I like
To sit in the synagogue and pray,
And maybe have a seat by the eastern wall.
And I’d discuss the holy books
With the learned men, seven hours every day.
That would be the sweetest thing of all.
To be rich and to know the law inside and out.
He would be doubly blessed. And so is the man who approaches Jesus with a question about eternal life.
How do I get there?  We are told the man is rich.  He is already blessed with wealth.”

Jesus tells him to follow the commandments. He has done this.

He knows them inside and out. He is rich and has obviously discussed the holy books with learned men, maybe as much as seven hours every day.  He is truly blessed.

Jesus, however sees something. Mark tells us he looked at him and loved him. Maybe he loved him because he was doubly blessed with wealth and knowledge. But given Jesus’ further response, he may have loved him because he saw his potential. This man might be capable of fully trusting in God. He just might be able to leave it all behind and serve the world in God’s name. And so, Jesus’ invites him to do just that. But he is too attached to his wealth, to his knowledge, to maybe that seat by the eastern wall. He goes away, sad.

The disciples are incredulous. How could a person so doubly blessed by wealth and knowledge of the law, not be the absolute example of salvation?  Why ask him to do anything else?  If he is not doing enough, then who can be saved?

Only God can do it, Jesus tells his disciples. Only God.

Twenty-eight years ago, I became the rector of medium-sized Episcopal Church with an average Sunday attendance of 200, in an industrial city in Ohio.  I had only been ordained priest a few months. I had no idea what I was doing. Thank God there were a few parishioners who became my teachers.

I grew especially attached to Archie Carter. Archie was in his 90s and had outlived two wives. He couldn’t drive anymore, so I would bring him communion about once a month. He was very hospitable, and I felt very comfortable in his presence. So, I would ask him questions.

Once, when he was talking about many of his friends who died, I asked him if grief got easier as you got older.

“Hell no,” he said.  You’re just in grief a lot more often.”

After a while, he started asking me questions. He liked to ask how certain parishioners were doing, especially the ones who seemed the most cantankerous. I would say something about each person and then he would just start to laugh a little.

I would say, “What’s that all about?”

He would answer, “I can’t tell you,” and laugh a little more.

Archie taught me a lot; about grief, about aging, about accepting people for who they are, even with their secrets, and so much more.

Then, one day, Archie’s kidneys began to fail. He refused treatment.

I said, “Archie, without dialysis you’re going to die.”

“We’re all gonna die,” he replied.

“You’re the bravest man I know.”

“I’m not brave, just tired.”

And then he went on, “What this is teaching me though, is how to trust in God. Because, when you get to this point, the only one left that you can trust is God. You can’t trust your body. It just starts to do whatever it wants, with no never-mind from you. You can’t trust those you love.  They leave you or die. You can’t trust your doctors. They can’t cure old age, just prolong it. All you’ve got left is God.  And so, I trust God for whatever comes next. And I’m okay with that.  I only wish I had learned it when I was your age,”

I remember what you told me all those years ago Archie. It’s been 25 years, and I am still trying to learn to fully trust in God. I’m still trying, Archie.  I’m still trying.

Rev. Susan Ironside, Rector at Grace Episcopal Church in Madison, NJ

Judith 8:32-9:11

Sir Kenneth Robinson, an educational expert who has taught educators across the globe, has a theory that we were all born with creativity, each and every last one of us.  We had creativity oozing out of us at birth.  But then life crushed it out of us.  He feels that schools are often the biggest contributors to the task of pummeling creativity, what with their fixation on rules and testing, But we in the Church probably do our part to quash creativity whenever we can pitch in with that effort, because of our own devotion to rules and order.  

When he lectures, Sir Kenneth often tells the story of a little girl in art class. She was six and she was drawing, and the teacher noticed because this little girl hardly ever paid attention. Yet in this drawing lesson she did. The teacher was fascinated, and went over to her and asked, “What are you drawing?”

And the girl said, “I’m drawing a picture of God.”

The teacher said, “But nobody knows what God looks like.” 

The girl replied, “Well, they will in a minute.”

Today the Church remembers Joan of Arc, the teenager who saved France.  At the age of 13 she heard the voice of God. Who knows what that even sounded like?  God and Joan had actual conversations for years.  Whatever they talked about, Joan became convinced that she—a peasant teenager—was the one who could save France.  And she did.   After no small amount of vetting, including the odd task of picking Charles VII out of a crowd when he was wearing a disguise, (which sounds creepy) and having to prove her virginity (which sounds chilling), Joan was actually put in a leadership role, and commanded knights to victory.  City after city fell to the army that she helped lead. 

After her military victory, she wanted to go home, but that wasn’t in the cards.  She was captured.   And the king whose army she had deftly led to victory couldn’t be bothered to ransom her from her captors.  The inevitable heresy trial ensued, because who in their right mind could take seriously a teenager who claimed to hear the voice of God?

At her trial, those who had authority over whether she would live or die said to Joan, “You say God speaks to you, but it’s only your imagination.”

She responded, “How else would God speak to me, if not through my imagination?”

It is fitting that on the day we remember Joan, we hear the story of Judith.  Well, some of it anyway.   Judith is the story of a woman—a widow—who used her intellect, resources, and even her body to save the Israelites from the Assyrians. 

Judith, we hear, had an unusual prayer life.  She asked God to make her a gifted liar, so she could plausibly seduce the head of the Assyrian army, which is exactly what she did.  She got him nice and drunk, and then beheaded him.  In so doing, she secured a vital military victory for the tribe.  It’s an amazing story.   Better beach reading this summer you will not find.

The lectionary gives us only a small snippet of her story on Joan of Arc’s Feast Day, We hear Judith pray, but before that she declares. “Listen to me. I am about to do something that will go down through all generations of our descendants.” 

And she was right.  She was right not only about what she was about to do, but also that generations of people, her decedents, would be talking about her action. And here we are, thousands of years later, and a world away, talking about her.   

I personally long for that kind of boldness in my life, to announce at the breakfast table before I leave the house in the morning that the work that I am about to do will be the stuff of legend.

So what do we make of these Spiritual Aunts of ours, Joan and Judith?

Maybe you have to be a teenager to take such risks, as our Aunt Joan did, to see God with your imagination.  Teenagers are so reckless! And don’t argue with them when it comes to what they do or do not believe about God. A teenager will look you straight in the eye and dare you to question that they have heard the voice of God or not.

Maybe you have to be a widow whose knowledge of God is so intimate that you can ask God to make you a good liar so you can accomplish dangerous things.    Widows know what it is like to lose, and don’t tell them for a moment that life isn’t complicated. Widows have stood on the threshold of grief and devastation and somehow kept on living, making a life in a world that often prefers people—women in particular—neatly partnered and attached to on ordinary household.

Whatever else can be said of us, we who are preachers, claim that at some point, we heard God calling.  Like Joan did.  Maybe it wasn’t a clear voice, or an actual conversation.  But we got some message at some point along the way that we were supposed to do something. So we submitted to a vetting process that was peculiar and exhausting. And like Judith, we have all, I suspect, asked God to make us good liars.  At least I have. Most of us have prayed and asked God to make us the kind of women and men who will look someone straight in the eyes sound plausible when we say that we know for sure that God loves them and is present with them, even on those days when (in our heart of hearts) we find them deeply annoying, or question if God can love anyone because we feel so unlovable ourselves, or we find our own lives so confusing.

What our great Aunts Joan and Judith knew is that when you are willing to fall into God’s embrace with nakedness and boldness you show people what God looks like, you draw a picture with your life so other people can see the God you see in your imagination.

That is our job as preachers. I don’t simply mean that we are to find boldness and creativity, although life will more colorful and preaching more vibrant when we do. But the task is greater.   Our job is to help the people in the assembly find their own boldness. So they can draw their own picture of God.

The best pictures of God are drawn by six year old girls, and all of God’s people. 

The Mom who drags herself to the dance recital after an exhausting day at work, even though the child who is dancing on the stage called her a jerk over breakfast and announced that she was an awful parent.  But that evening in the school auditorium, that mom drew a picture of the God who teaches, “love keeps no record of wrongs.”

An insurance agent in my parish drew a picture of God after a storm devastated a widow’s house, leaving her homeless. Telling no one, not even his Rector, this man was on the phone for hours, using his knowledge of the industry to navigate the complexities of what needed to happen next, even though it was someone else’s job and someone else’s insurance company.  That man drew the most stunning picture of God, an illustration of how when we are taking care of an old lady who has a tree fall on the only house she has ever known, we are actually doing nothing less than giving shelter to Jesus.

The best pictures of God are drawn by people like the teacher in my community who made flashcards on her own 3×5 index cards for the student whose undocumented parents couldn’t possibly afford them.  That teacher drew a stunning illustration of the God who welcomes the stranger and gathers the little child.

All of those things happened in my ordinary life and my ordinary parish.  And those stories are the stuff of legend. 

Our job is to put a blank piece of paper in front of the assembly so that they can draw a picture of God, the God that they see, the God they have come to know in Jesus through the stories of our ancestors and through his Body the Church.   

It is our job to hold a paper in front of another person so that they can sit at their breakfast table in the morning and announce, “Listen to me.  I am about to do something that will go down for generations.  In a few minutes, people will see what God looks like.”

Rev. Dr. Sam Wells – Rector of St. Martin In The Fields in London, England

Luke 22.14-18

We live our lives by two stories. There’s the one we present on interview, when we want to impress people; and there’s the other one we tell only to a therapist, a confessor, or the most trusted friend. The church also lives its life by two stories. There’s the story of faith, courage, and martyrdom – sacrifice, and perfect love. That’s the story we call All Saints. And then there’s the story of fragility, fear, and failure – foolishness, and forgiveness. That’s the story we call All Souls.

Every Christian makes the same mistake. We all think God wants our posh story, our All Saints’ story. But the truth is, God wants the real story, the All Souls story. Being a Christian means longing to be a saint – but, in the meantime, offering to God the reality of our soul.

The title of Kate Atkinson’s 1995 novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, gives a clue to its theme. The novel’s a museum, because it’s full of memories, mostly about four generations of women in the family of the narrator, Ruby. But it’s behind the scenes, because, one by one, elements are reintroduced into the story that’ve been forgotten, denied, or suppressed. The plot rattles along through post-war British history on a hilarious rollercoaster, and you’re never sure if the intention is simply to evoke rib-tickling laughter. But that leaves you wholly undefended for the moment when suddenly, very near the end, the savage twist clasps you like a stomach cramp, and you’re gasping for air.

By this time Ruby’s a young adult. Piecing together stray remarks and inexplicable anomalies, she’s driven to rummage through the shoebox that contains her family’s most precious treasures. In the shoebox Ruby discovers the clue to her whole existence. She comes upon a birth certificate, and realizes she had a sister, Pearl. Not just a sister – a twin, born on the very same day as she, Ruby. She was born a twin. Ruby and Pearl. And there, to prove it, a locket, with a photo of the two sisters, one on each side. But then, a death certificate, dated four years later. Cause of death: drowning. The precious Pearl had drowned, aged just 4.

Ruby seeks out her mother. In dismay she yells, ‘You can’t just blot someone out like that. … You can’t pretend someone never existed, not talk about them, not look at photographs.’ Her mother replies, defensively, ‘There were photographs. And we did talk about her. It was you who blotted her out, not us.’ But Ruby’s outburst has unlocked a chamber in her mother’s soul. They open up the locket with the photos of the twins and look at it for a long time in silence. Ruby demands to know, ‘Which one? Which one is Pearl?’ Her mother points to the one on the left, and says, ‘My Pearl. My Pearl,’ and begins to weep.

Think of that locket for a moment. On the right is a picture of Ruby – the story Ruby thinks she knows, the story it’s easier for everyone to tell. And on the left is a picture of Pearl – the story full of regret, guilt, and grief, loss, and sadness – the story no one really wants to tell. Except Pearl, perhaps. And, deep down Ruby and her mother, desperately, achingly, wrenchingly – Ruby and her mother, who can’t truly tell any kind of story to one another until they’ve gone back and told a truthful story about Pearl; the fact that she lived, and the way she died.

Think of that locket as the two stories of the church – on the right All Saints, the story we want to tell, and on the left All Souls, the story of what took place behind the scenes, the story we’ve suppressed, forgotten, denied – but the story God knows, the story God remembers; and the story we have to learn how to tell if we’re to stand truthfully before God and be restored in our relationship with one another.

Our worship can only be genuine if it brings to mind the left-hand picture in that locket, naming some of the faces and hearing some of the voices our society and our church has tended to forget, tried to suppress, or sought to deny, and mindful of those memories and experiences in ourselves that, like Ruby, we’ve tried hard to bury behind the scenes in the museum of our own imagination.

Why are such voices integral to our worship? Because when we stand before the throne of grace, as a person, a society, or a church, we can only ask God to redeem what we bring with us. If we show God just the right hand side of the locket, if we try to tell God just an All Saints story, God will either laugh, or cry.

At the Last Supper Jesus took bread, and broke it, to represent the breaking of his body. And he said, ‘Do this, and remember me.’ Do this, he said, and re-member. That’s our hope. Not that our lives and memories and lockets aren’t broken. We know they are. But that we’ll be re-membered in God. That’s what resurrection is – God putting all our members back together, going behind the scenes, and literally re-membering us. And so to open our lives to the suppressed, the forgotten, and the denied members of our society and our church is to anticipate heaven, by the same process of re-membering.

The last chapter of Behind the Scenes at the Museum is called ‘Redemption.’ Ruby’s talking to her surviving sister, Patricia. Patricia’s trying to encourage her sister to move on. She says, ‘The past is what you leave behind in life, Ruby.’ Ruby’s having none of it. ‘Nonsense, Patricia,’ she retorts. ‘The past is what you take with you.’

And that’s the gospel. We’re on the left-hand side of God’s locket; but God doesn’t suppress us, deny us, forget us, or leave us behind. Broken as we are, God re-members us, and embraces us, and says, ‘I’m taking you with me.’

Rev. George “Tripp” Hudgins, Bogard Teaching Fellow at CDSP, Instructor in Homiletics and Liturgy

On October 24, 2005, the Barna Group released a study that showed “new forms of religious experience and expression are growing in popularity, drawing millions of people closer to God but farther away from involvement in a congregational church.” The brief article continues: “new ways of experiencing and expressing faith, such as threw house churches, marketplace ministries, and cyber churches, are becoming the norm for millions of people.” Though certainly not as balanced as other sociological reports from the same time, I have held onto this particular report because of the surprise and anxiety expressed by researchers invested in the present and future health of congregational Christianity. In 2005 the organization was attempting to help congregational leaders understand the sociological sea change that is American religious life. This included the impact of digital technology and social media. 

Of course, none of this was new in 2005. Various institutions and organizations were wrestling with the implications of digital technology and social media. Blown to Bits , a 2000 Harvard Business School publication, made much of the implications on marketing and communication. The authors wrote of the demise of the Encyclopedia Britannica as it was rapidly replaced by Wikipedia. If information was a kind of capital, its transmission across social media platforms completely disrupted the information marketplace. This was and still is no less true for traditional Christian communities. In fact, as I write, the Seventy-Ninth General Convention of the Episcopal Church is meeting in Austin, TX. I have been able to follow along with the proceedings and debate important issues on social media platforms each day. I have witnessed public addresses as well as sermons from the convention on these same platforms both via officially sanctioned social media feeds as well as through the work of individual participants present at the convention. 

Also on my desk is the third edition of Tom Long’s great book on preaching, The Witness of Preaching . Published in 2016, this primer for homiletics says almost nothing about the impact of digital and social media upon the practice of preaching. It is virtually ignored. I offer this not as a negative critique of the rightly admired scholar’s work but as an observation. Homiletics is homiletics whether the sermon be broadcast on closed circuit television, a live national broadcast from a stadium, or on a social media platform via smart phone. Long was under no obligation to change his text because of this radically transformative technology. Thorough exegesis, for example, is still important. That said, I desired to know what Long might be able to offer. If, as others have argued, sermons have become more conversational in their creation and in their presentation, does this change our theology of preaching? Does it change the nature of our exegetical work or our spiritual preparation? Perhaps using social media to prepare for ones sermon is a kind of spiritual practice of its own. Lastly, let’s not forget the theological implications of the sacramentality of preaching, its embodiment, and performance. Is an online sermon embodied? How so?

This brief essay is an exploration of “preaching online.” I will offer five brief examples of how preachers are using social media to prepare for, present, and share the preaching event. Some preachers simply share the text of their sermons. Some preachers share a video of their sermons after the fact. Some preachers “preach live” on social media and then post that video elsewhere. Some are preaching at a regular Sunday morning service. Some are preaching to “online churches” or, as Barna would have it, cyber churches. I will focus on style more than content except where the content is made possible by virtue of the nature of preaching on line. The preachers come from within and without the Episcopal Church. Thus, their theological concerns vary.

The Social Media Platform Sermon

In a sense, each of these sermons is a “social media platform sermon.” With this particular example, however, I want to use the broader definition because of how the homiletican utilizes her social media presence across platforms. This kind of sermon is preached in a normal worship service, but there is a component of sharing either before or after the experience that the preacher has of the event with their social media community. 

The Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney is a scholar of Old Testament at Brite Divinity School. She is also an Episcopal priest. She is a respected and well-known scholar and an excellent preacher. What Dr. Gafney does particularly well is utilize her media platform to amplify her voice, her presence as a leader in the church. Like so many other people who exist outside the white male mainstream in the Protestant mainline, she uses social media, specifically Facebook and Twitter, to share her work instead. 

For example, on April 15 of this year, she posted this brief reflection on her sermon from the same morning.
My sermon went well this morning. By well I mean I heard some meaningful responses from folk, white folk, who heard it as prophetic and is making them necessarily uncomfortable. I preached on white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and anti-Judaism — who says I don’t preach on the trinity. One man said he wanted to stand up and cheer at the end. I told him to do so next time, Episcopalians are too quiet.
The sermon was preached at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Worth. There were 24 comments and 189 people reacted to it with a “like” or some other response. The reactions came from those present at the liturgy including parishioners and clergy. This means that the conversation about her sermon continued long after people shook her hand to thank her for the challenging word or during coffee hour in the parish hall. Dr. Gafney’s Facebook posts regularly create such a response. Her sermons, specifically their subject matter, and her thoughts about the preaching moment generate much conversation well after the event itself is done. The link to the audio for the sermon was shared in the comments as well as on Dr. Gafney’s blog. 

There is a social media ripple effect to each preaching event. This is typical practice for Dr. Gafney and many other preachers. Dr. Gafney’s notoriety, however, makes this particular strategy quite effective. The benefit of extended conversation is clear as well. The spiritual revelation shared from the pulpit is not lost to the moment nor is the presence of the preacher lost to a listener who might want further conversation. And Dr. Gafney is almost always willing to engage in more thoughtful communication. This is essential to any preacher who wishes to share their sermons similarly. 

The Rev. David Hansen is pastor of Spirit of Joy! Lutheran Church in Woodlands, Texas. He also uses social media to amplify his voice. In particular, he shares his sermons via podcast. On June 4 of this year, he shared an astonishing (at least to him) bit of data. He is, apparently, “big in Japan.” The statistics from his previous ten podcasts indicated that 22% (187) of the downloads were from Tokyo, Japan. Thirty-five percent (304) were from Spring, Texas, and 12% (107) were from Ashburn, VA. Podcasting can be a surprising tool for sharing the Gospel. It is decidedly less social than Facebook or Twitter, but one never knows where such transmission can lead.
Social media is, in the end, social. One does oneself a huge disservice if one posts a sermon and then vanishes into the ether of social media. The entire purpose is to continue the conversation in hopes that further conversation might lead to transformation. Dr. Gafney does this very well and Rev. Hansen has been given an opportunity to discover to where the boundaries of his congregation actually extend.

The “Live From The Pulpit” Sermon

The Rev. Brian Merritt is a Presbyterian pastor and serves as the Interim Pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He records his sermons via Facebook Live. Just as he’s about to read the Gospel passage from the pulpit, he starts his broadcast. The camera (from a smartphone) is on the pulpit facing him. As he reads, he looks at the camera effectively making “eye-contact” with the viewers. As one watches him preach, he will do this from time to time. 

It is an interesting point of view. Rev. Merritt is wearing a preaching alb and a green stole in a recent video . His gaze goes out over the pulpit to the congregation, to the camera, and then to the manuscript he uses as he preaches. It is clear he is comfortable with the manuscript as he doesn’t rely on it overly much. Yet, it is still an unusual experience to note how his attention is divided three ways.
I asked him when he started doing this simultaneous social media feed when he preached. In conversation with me, he shared:
I had already been doing something similar when I was at Mercy Junction and at Renaissance. I was given a lot more freedom to experiment in those two places. Immanuel liked these online sermons and asked me to do them here. At Renaissance we tried to put [the camera] further [away], but it caused all kinds of issues with sound and viewing. The reason I put it there on the pulpit is twofold. First, I can look at the camera, plus I can also see some of the people who are watching and then I feel connected to them. I have had a few that have watched my sermons for about 3 years. Second, the location is not visible to the congregation in the sanctuary. I felt like if I put it on the side of the pulpit it would have been a distraction. 

We see here a couple of different concerns come to the fore. First, there are the simple logistics of where one places the camera. The camera becomes a kind of ritual object that one must take into account when crafting liturgy. Merritt worries that it becomes a distraction rather than an invisible means of broadcasting the sermon online. Second, he then must divide his attentions in thirds, if you will. Or at least, be aware that someone is sitting on the pulpit rather than in the pews. Preachers often need to make eye contact with people seated in various places in the nave or church. That’s not a new dynamic. But it might prove difficult at first to pay attention to people who are placed on the pulpit before you. Lastly, there is the added pastoral dimension that there are people who have been watching him and “following” him from place to place. The live broadcast begins on his personal Facebook page and then the video is saved to the church’s page. This makes sense as he personally has a larger reach than his congregation does at present. Much of his interim work is about revitalizing this particular congregation. It is unclear how he ministers to the people who follow him. But it is clear that some connection has been made as he expects to see them log on and intentionally makes “eye contact” with the camera to let them know that he sees them.
Merritt also shared:

“I also do sermon teaser the day before. I have not been inviting people as often to watch, but that always helps to post on Facebook ahead of the sermon. I have less viewers [here in Albuquerque] than in Chattanooga, but my sermons are a lot less Justice oriented here. Also a different time zone. I know for a fact that I have been able to reach some shut ins and retired clergy for services. That is one of the reasons I love doing it. “

Thus, we can see a broader strategy that employs the use of his personal social media platform as well as his congregations’. He has had to be aware of the shifting results depending on the needs of each community and adjust his own expectations accordingly. One community is revitalizing. Another community has an active social justice ministry for which Merritt had much passion. I, however, find his last comment most poignant. It is an act of love to share the sermons online. It is not a thoughtless act of cultural obedience or even the reluctant caving to the pressure to engage the technology because “that’s how we’ll get the young people.” Rather, making the sermons available online is something he loves to do and serves those who need it.

The Online Sermon for the Online Church

Both of these next instances are more typical of what we think of when we imagine “preaching online.” These next two preachers have served or are currently serving communities that meet primarily online. There is no corollary physical structure or gathering community. The geography of the “parish” is dispersed. It is wherever the parishioners are. As such, preaching to a specific congregation with specific needs is not always on the forefront of the minds of these two preachers. For these and other reasons, the very idea that these online addresses are considered sermons is problematic to some. 

Kimberly Laskowski was the Minister of Digital Community at Extravagance, UCC. Extravagance is located in Cleveland, Ohio. At the time of this sermon, Minister Laskowski was living in Florida. Digital community can, of course, be run from anywhere. During her tenure there, she hosted an online gathering called “Thin Space.” You can find one of their events online on Facebook. Live broadcasted and then posted on Facebook on May 31 of 2016, it is an excellent example of the kind of dialogical preaching available online.
Minister Laskowski is on a beach. It is night time. Several of her friends and family are gathered behind her. They are sitting in a circle on beach chairs and the like. Laskowski is facing the camera. She is dressed for the beach and not a traditional worship service. This evening she welcomes people who gather online. As they arrive, she encourages them to get comfortable, to silence other electronic devices, light a candle or dim the lights, and perhaps find something to drink like tea or something else soothing. They are to create their own sense of sacred space where they are to better connect to the kind of space she and her friends have created on the beach. This approach is highly individualized. Again and again, congregants are encouraged to do what most works for them. She mentions them by name as they say hello to one another via a chat application. “I’m so glad you’re here,” she says more than once. “Here” in this instance is within the online environment which includes all the geographic locations in which each participant resides. “Here” becomes an enormous conceptual space which includes both online and offline locations. 

This evening’s sermon is actually a lectio divina exercise. She leads the online group as well as the folks who are with her on the beach through a three-fold exercise with the Psalm 104. Congregants are encouraged to sit, to listen for the Holy Spirit, and to engage with her as well as one another in the chatroom. They are encouraged to share with one another and care for one another. The exercise and conversation lasts more than fifteen minutes. People are clearly engaged in chatting with one another as well as with Laskowski. After this “shared sermon” is ended, Laskowski asks if there are any prayer concerns. Those who have gathered online share their concerns and Laskowski closes their time together with an improvised pastoral prayer in response. 

The ministry is designed to serve those who have felt excluded from traditional church communities for some reason. As Laskowski identifies as a partnered lesbian and has been quite public about her struggles with her conservative upbringing on a Patheos blog as well as other venues online and offline, she has intentionally crafted a space with the assumption that those who come are dealing with a spiritual wound of some kind. Her careful and caring presence and her conversational preaching style are founded on this assumption.
The second example of this kind of preaching is Brook Louis Connor, an Episcopal layperson who lives in Berkeley, California. I first met Brook when he was a student in my Introduction to Homiletics class at Church Divinity School of the Pacific two years ago. He had cross registered from Pacific School of Religion. On the first day of class, I asked all the students what they hoped they would learn. He said that he already had an online preaching ministry and wanted to learn how to better preach online. That was what he was looking for from an Introduction to Homiletics class. Keeping his desire in mind, I tried to make sure to point out when I thought a particular insight shared in class would be helpful for him, but mostly, I found my own pedagogy lacking even though I myself have been preaching online via live feeds or a YouTube series for many years. Even I forgot to include preaching online in an introduction to homiletics. Surely, the ubiquity of the technology and the corresponding practices suggest that teaching something about the process of preaching online belongs in an introductory course. And yet, even I was stymied. Brook was only the first of several students who have asked me for such instruction over these last couple of years teaching homiletics. 

Brook’s own ministry is rather simple. He is training to be a spiritual director and has a website as well as a YouTube channel. He has been recording sermons and meditations and posting them online. Sometimes people comment. Sometimes they don’t. Unlike some of the other examples already examined here, Brook does not have an online community of his own from which to create a worshiping community. The others represent a kind of Christian technorati. Thus, they have followers. Brook’s own ministry is thus not as robust as the others. His preaching style is really rather simple. He sets up the camera on the kitchen table and sits down at the table to discuss the scriptures. His sermons are structured more like a personal journal entry than what one might consider traditional. He “vlogs,” or video blogs.

Conclusions

In such a brief essay as this, one can only begin to scratch the surface of what it means to preach online. What I have tried to do is offer the reader a handful of models that may hopefully prove to be helpful in beginning to understand more deeply what is actually happening in the lives of believers who offer these sermons as well as those who watch and listen to them. We have seen that preaching online affords certain opportunities that preaching from the traditional pulpit alone cannot. 

First, as we saw with Dr. Gafney, sermons can be generated and shared in such a way that the revelations therein are transmitted via a variety of platforms giving people who are oft on the outside of the white mainline mainstream an avenue to be heard and known. Second, and related, transmission is not controlled by the preacher, per se. People from all over the globe may download the sermon and engage with it in unknowable ways. Third, we saw how the practice can augment the preaching moment itself as with Rev. Merritt’s locating his camera right on the pulpit, live broadcasting, and then posting on the church’s Facebook page. Some online congregants have been following his preaching for some time. And, perhaps more interesting, the offline context does impact the online preaching in terms of content. Fourth, we saw through Laskowski’s ministry that the disparate geographic locations can be addressed in creative ways to better create sacred space for the individual and thus, for the collective. Fifth and lastly, we learned that some students Like Brook Louis Connor are coming to Introduction to Homiletics classes curious about how to preach online and assuming that they will learn something about the practice in class. There appears to be a need for instructors to become adept at the performative and technological aspects of such preaching.

Rt. Rev. Robert Wright, Bishop of Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta

This sermon was the opening address for a group assembled specifically to address Civil Discourse in America. Featuring members of the United States House of Representatives (both Republicans and Democrats) along with nationally recognized voices from The Episcopal Church, the conference was concerned with pivoting from our current milieu to a place of cooperation and collaboration.

Good evening! I’m delighted to be with you in this place and attending to this important topic, “Civil Discourse in America.” The question hanging over this conference is very specific, How do we follow Jesus given the thickening fog of incivility in our political discourse in our nation. Every sermon needs a biblical text. I choose that old standby. 1 Corinthians 1-13. “Though I speak in the tongues of men and of angels and have not love, I am as a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.” But it is the eleventh verse of that chapter that I want to emphasize. There Paul says, “…when I was a child, I thought as a child, I spoke as a child I understood as a child. But, when I became a man.” A woman. “I put away childish things.” What I think Paul is trying to say to his community then and to our community now, even our country is, grow up! This is important because youth comes but once but immaturity can last a life time! The heart of what I want to say tonight is very simple, by virtue of our baptism, we are different.

By the grace of God, we are growing up into the full stature of Christ. Daily. Hourly. Usually reluctantly. But nevertheless growing up. And if that is true, then when it comes to politics, we are trans-political! That is, we are in the world of politics, but we are not of the world of politics. We are in politics but bigger than politics. Especially the incivility of politics. Of course we should be an educated and active citizenry, but we are ultimately not defined by politics. The Apostle Paul put it this way, “…our citizenship is in heaven…..” I would remind us there is no Republican or Democratic section of heaven. Which is to say, growing up, if it means anything, means clarity about ultimate allegiance. Our first allegiance is to God as we understand God in the life, ministry, example, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Which is to say, despite the increasing complexity and velocity of modern life, we refuse to allow the corresponding bewilderment to drive us to the blasphemy of self-sufficiency or rank tribalism. You and I have been given and have accepted the high calling of partnership with God. And the substance of that partnership is to be demonstrating in the real, beautiful and broken world two things-just two things-the irreducibility of God and the irreducibility of neighbor. Our refreshed loyalty to these two tenants will break the adolescent appeal and power of loathing- loathing of the other and loathing of political opposition. Loyalty to God is a greater power than the loathing of opponent. What that means practically, even daily, is that you and I must do the interior work of purging from ourselves every residue of contempt. Contempt for other has become the new, practical, consensus building American ethos. Sadly contempt for other has deep roots in the history of our republic as a means to political and economic ends. But, it seems especially in the last couple of decades this phenomenon has found new zeal. It is a no brainer that this phenomenon has been supercharged by the rise of the 24hour, perpetually breaking news, sound bite, gotcha journalism culture we live in. And yes, both political parties participate in this. And yes, it predates the current administration.

The problem is pernicious because most of us consciously or unconsciously collude with the incivility of the status quo. The problem is, contempt for neighbor in any form- even polite southern contempt… bless your heart, is inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus. And, our maintenance of contempt in all its forms frustrates the working of God’s grace.

Given that this conversation is taking place in Lent, I suggest the taking on of a new spiritual discipline to fend off incivility. It is a spiritual discipline to acknowledge, repent and forsake contempt for neighbor in public and private conversations and thoughts. Even over your social media accounts. This is not about politically correct lips, that is beneath us. Our work is heart work. Civility is about the dignity of others and our commitment to the humility that seeks an abundant future for all of God’s children. This is about transformed hearts. This is about spiritual maturity at the local and cosmic level. When we grow up we remember, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood. We wrestle against powers and principalities.” What is necessary here is that you and I begin the slow and essential work of coughing up the asphyxiating mucous of contempt for one another. I can not make this point strongly enough or frequently enough. As Bishop of a Diocese that spans more than seventy-five counties in middle and north Georgia, I understand it to be part of my job to listen both Rachel Maddow and Rush Limbaugh. I listen to both because my diocese listens to one or the other. What I have learned is that both news sources share a spirit of contempt for the core constituency of the other. One version could be described as subtle and condescending. And the other unabashedly hostile and vile. But really it just depends on who you ask. Either way, both are trafficking in a substance more addictive than opioids, contempt. But when I listen to either Rush or Rachel I have found a new way to listen. I don’t listen as a partisan. I’m not listening for talking points. I listen as an ambassador. I listen as a translator. Again we remember Paul when he says, “I understand the law and order people. And I understand the people who are not under the law. I understand the weak. Because I know my own weaknesses. I take up this relational work so I can save some.” That is, so I can point people to things eternal. If we were to talk to Paul this evening he might say to us that there will be no progress in the community, no progress in the nation or the church until someone decides to be the grown up. Until someone decides to default to curiosity rather than always, always defensiveness. Until someone says eradication of the political opposition has no place in the American family.

But not only that. If we are to really defeat this demon called contempt for neighbor that spawns incivility in all things, we have to acknowledge it’s a three headed demon each with its own name. Contempt’s three heads are smallness, separateness and superiority. When Paul asks us to grow up. He understands love and immaturity. Love and smallness can’t co-exist. He doesn’t condemn our smallnesses but suggests that while smallness might be a starting point it mustn’t be an ending point for us. Smallness has to be confronted and converted.

Separateness is a global heresy that has historic and unique expressions in America. But sadly at the core of the idea of separateness there is a tragic lie. Sure there is a diversity of human experience, absolutely, but what guides us always is what is at the core, the center. The core is, the coal communities of West Virginia want what the so called ‘coastal elites’ want for their children, a hope and a future. We are not a human race. We are a human family.

This brings us to the notion of superiority. Contempt depends of this part perhaps the most. There is something that you and I are supposed to learn in the notion that Jesus is Lord of Lords and King of Kings and yet left his gated community called heaven to live among the day laborers and peasant class of Nazareth. Equality with God puts us beside one another. Not even Jesus is exempt from this idea. Our attainments, achievements, education and advancements in the Christian context are simply equipment to be harnessed for the common good. Superiority based on race has recently been dealt a death blow by the scientific community. There is this idea about the Mitochondrial Eve. She is the most recent common ancestor of all of humanity. We are inextricably linked. We are all Africans. What affects some affects all. All are children of the same God. Of one blood. DNA doesn’t lie.

If the year 1968 in America were to speak to us now, what would she say? She might say, you think you’re divided? Huh. What a bunch of amateurs! You remember that in 1968, the war in Vietnam was raging. The generations were divided about our presence in Southeast Asia. There was absolute chaos on college campuses. Martin was killed on a balcony in Memphis and Bobby was killed in kitchen in California. Not only that, President Johnson went on television to the great surprise of everyone and said that he would not seek nor would he accept the nomination of his party for re-election as President. Talk about chaos. With this grand and surprising gesture LBJ hoped to unite the country. He used the following words to frame his actions. “A house divided cannot stand.” Of course he borrowed those words from Jesus. But they ring true now. What LBJ might have also said to us in 1968 and what we might think of now is that not only can a divided house not stand, but neither can an adolescent nation flourish. New maturity must come forward from us if we are to continue this democratic experiment. America is a gangly, acned, clumsy idea as nations go. She is a youthful 242 years old. We have proof of this immaturity in our bi-nary decision making. We say either border security or DACA rather than secure borders and a path to citizenship for the most deserving. We say we desire a strong and ready military without seeing the role of a talented diplomatic corps in the equation for safety and peace. We argue that the second amendment is sacrosanct without seeing that common sense public safety legislation would refine the public’s sense of gun ownership and keep the 2nd amendment out the cross- hairs of its opponents. St. Paul’s says we must grow up in how we think and how we speak and how we understand. This was sage advice in his day and it still is so. Incivility has to be attacked in our hearts as we endeavor to attack in all the public places that it lives.

I got a recent remedial lesson on this from Ambassador Andrew Young who I am proud to call friend. As you know while Dr. King was preaching us into a more perfect union by telling us of his dream. It was Andy Young in cramped back rooms all over the country negotiating progress with all kinds of people. Prior to an event where he was to address school children about appreciating others, I was with him and a few others just chatting and catching up on current events. That’s where the growing up began again. He fussed at us about the constant personal attacks on our current President he had heard on the morning news. I could see the shock on peoples face. How could this civil rights icon take such a tone about this President? He went on to remind us that in no place in Dr. King’s work would we find a personal attack on any person or group opposing the work of civil rights. He said, you won’t even find a personal attack, or contempt for Bull Connor, of fire hoses and snarling dog fame. No personal attacks ever. Not even for Bull. He said, you see what you don’t understand is that our goal was not the annihilation of the opposition. Our goal was not the humiliation of the opposition. Our goal was transformation. Our goal was to leave room, even for the people we disagreed with the most, for them to retain their dignity. If our aim is to purge incivility from our politics. If our aim is to proclaim that we are an American family. Then our work must be to transform the soul of our nation. One encounter at a time. This has been done before. This can be done now with faith, hope and love, the greatest of these of course being love.

Commentary
Speaking about contemporary issues from the pulpit is dangerous business. Still, the preacher must not actively avoid contemporary issues at the risk of muzzling the Gospel. It sounds like an obvious point but the issue du jour must not be central to the sermon but rather the gospel must be the reason for the address. The biblical text must not be dragged kicking and screaming into a conversation about headlines. To be guilty of that practice is to erode the trust necessary between the preacher and the congregation and encumber learning and spiritual growth. Yet when the preacher sees clearly the contrast between the idea of biblical neighborliness and modern living that emerges organically and authentically in sermon preparation they are duty bound to offer the congregation that insight devoid of shame and judgement or politically taint. Always the invitation heard in the sermon needs to be, even when addressing contemporary issues, to a new expression of Christian maturity.

Rev. Kate Spelman, Rector at All Saints in Western Springs, IL

Easter Sunday

So…there’s a man who’s going to go rob a house. He’s a professional, see, and so he carefully stakes out a big nice house in a quiet little town. He watches all day, until the people he has seen go in and out come out all together, dressed up for a night out or a nice dinner. He knows they are all gone, and will be out for some time.

So the thief walks up to the house, and knocks –“Hello?” – no answer. He tries the door and, because this is a nice quiet town just like this one, he finds it unlocked. “Hello?” he call again, from the foyer. And this time he hears a voice from far away faintly say what sounds like “Shame on you – I see you, and Jesus sees you.”

He’s intrigued, but not really that scared, and so the thief walks down the hallway. Again, a voice says, “I see you, and Jesus sees you.”

The light in the back of the kitchen is on. Maybe, he thinks, there’s an invalid grandparent who’s been left behind as the family goes out for a nice night. He walks to the back of the kitchen and around the corner, and there he sees ….

… a parrot in a cage. The parrot looks at him and says, “I see you, and Jesus sees you.”

And the thief is not afraid. In fact, he smacks the side of the bird’s cage the tosses it from its perch. “you silly creature,” he says, “I’m not afraid of you.”

The bird, ruffled, gets up, and looks the man straight in the eye – “I see you, and Jesus sees you!” And then the bird looks behind the thief.

The thief turns, following the parrot’s gaze, just in time to see a giant, slobbering Doberman launch itself off the bottom of the back stairwell. “Sic ‘em, Jesus!” the parrot screams!

You like it? This was a joke told to me by a Roman Catholic priest in the middle of Lent.  And he, along with our local Methodist pastor, have been joking about it in a group text since then, in part because there’s nothing tired clergy need more at this point of the year than humor.

But Bill, my Roman Catholic stand-up friend did tell me that there’s a tradition in the church of telling a joke on Easter Sunday – because today is the day that God plays a divine joke on all of us!

Today, God plays the ultimate joke on death and evil – you may think you’ve won, God chuckles to herself, but have I got a punchline for you. Today, against all the forces of darkness and evil, God has the last laugh.

At the risk of exposing myself as the pompous jackass you all suspect me to be, let me say that my favorite book for many years now has been Moby Dick. I’ve read it now quite a few times, and each time it seems like a bit of a different story – that’s what great literature is, it’s something we can come back to again and again.

So, first time I read Moby Dick, It’s a about humanity’s fight with nature. Second time maybe it’s about evil versus good, a work of process theology. Third time – very boring book about whaling with way too much detail.

Now the fourth time I read Moby Dick, I knew it was coming, the beginning of chapter 49 really captured me. Here, Melville writes in the voice of his narrator, Ishmael:

There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.

I read Moby Dick again this winter, I let this this quote become the lens through which I read the entire book. I read it as Melville’s great big joke on me, the reader; Moby Dick as a parody of all the Great American Novel is supposed to be.

At the very least, reading Moby Dick as comedy makes it much more entertaining. Reading those long digressions on whaling practices in an ironic faux-scholarly tone makes them much more tolerable.

What I want to ask you to do today is to do the same with the Gospel.

Consider Easter – the very miracle of the resurrection – as a great joke. God’s parody of our expectations and fears.

I bet that the moment where Jesus revealed himself to Mary, she felt exactly like Melville’s Ishmael – that the whole of the world, the whole of her life, was one big long joke – and herself the butt of it.

And what joy must Mary have greeted her Lord – her friend – who was lost but now was found, who was dead but now was risen, who was gone forever but suddenly there in the flesh to show her – her – that God would get the last laugh.

I’d like to imagine the moment right before that moment too, the moment in the garden where the Holy Trinity are giggling together behind Mary’s back. They know just how shocked Mary will be when this silly gardener turns out to be none other than the beloved teacher she thought utterly gone.

God rubs her hands together because she is so tickled this all worked out so perfectly. The Holy Spirit throws an elbow into Jesus’s side (maybe the Christ winces, he’s still sore from that spear). Sic ‘em, Jesus, I can hear the Spirit saying – Go show her that there are no tears to be cried, unless they are tears of joy and mirth. 

That’s not a good joke –  That is a GREAT joke!

A great joke that God is playing on us – and on all the powers, principalities, and pharaohs of this world.

A joke played on death – and everything else – that pretends that is greater than God’s love for us. A joke played on doubt, and hurt, and sin – and all those thieving fears that make us wonder if God’s promises ever really will be fulfilled, or if anyone is ever coming back to save us.  A joke played on everything – – even our very worst selves – that would set itself up as if it could come between us and God.

Joke’s on us! April Fools!

Now you know a good joke takes time to develop. Maybe even three days in a tomb. A good joke holds us in suspense… we know that something is coming, but we don’t know when to expect it, or what form it will take. A good joke makes us chuckle – but a great joke … a great joke makes us reframe everything. We have to rethink the whole story that we just heard. We might even have to rethink the whole of our world!

A great joke makes us see everything differently, reconsider what we know. And that’s exactly what Easter should do. That’s what Easter can do, if we are willing to get in on the joke with Jesus.

There are so many times when this old world seems bleak and hopeless. Times when a knowing, dark humor is the very thing called for, the very thing that will save us from the pit of despair.

I’m talking about a good, clean, liberating laugh – a laugh that is tinged with relief. Not a laugh from a dirty pun or at someone else’s hurt. A laugh that comes from the world being exposed for just as silly, just as paper thin, as we have always suspected it to be.

I think that’s how Mary might have laughed – with joy, delight, relief – when she realized who she was speaking to in the Garden that day.

It’s a laugh God wills for us today – yes, even in church! Today you get to giggle, chortle, chuckle, even snort a little in church. Because today we celebrate that God chose what seems weak and foolish to us to be our source of strength, and the salvation of us all!

Joke’s on us – we are the fools!

May we all be fools for Christ.

For being fools for Christ means we recognize that the same sad story this old world tells us is merely the set-up to God’s most famous punchline –

Oh death, where is thy sting?

Oh tomb, where is your victory?

Those powers of death and sin – those thieves of joy and hope – are vanity of vanities, nothing more than God’s cosmic set-up.

Being fools for Christ may make us act in ways the world deems foolish: Loving more radically, more freely than any rational person would. Raising kids to value themselves for who they are and not what they do. Giving away our wealth instead of hoarding it. Turning the other cheek and being peacemakers in our homes and in our streets.

Fools for Christ will share, care, preach and teach in ways this old world is not ready for. And when they tell us “you can’t do that!” or, “that’s not how that works!”  We fools will just laugh to ourselves, and pray they someday get in on the joke too.

This day we should all be foolish – not just for April, but for Christ! For the resurrection is a brilliant, wonderful joke! A masterpiece of timing and upheaval that forces us to read the rest of the story differently.

So many thieves DO sneak in in the night. They wait until it is dark – when our defenses are down, when our best selves have gone out to dinner or taken the night off. So many thieves break in to steal what hope we have tried to shore up for ourselves. We have no power in ourselves to save ourselves, which means that we are entirely reliant on God’s grace and power – things that seem foolish entirely at first reading.

At times like that, it is as if we find ourselves alone in that dark tomb, not sure of how or whether we will make it out – and if so, what the point could even be. Beset by thieving doubt… by temptation… by evil… by fear – it would seem we are trapped in the same old story.

But suddenly there comes a voice  – I see you, and Jesus sees you.

And then the light bursts forth, with the luminosity of a thousand suns, and a voice seeming as if from heaven proclaims the words that will roll the stone away and set us free –

 Sic ‘em, Jesus!

Commentary

My perspective on sermon-writing was changed forever by a writing seminar, “Words that Sing II,” with professor Mary Nielsen at the Collegeville Institute. My greatest learning from Mary was a lesson in simplicity. How many metaphors could we use per work? Mary is a gentle Midwestern Lutheran soul, but her insistence on this topic was rock-solid and the fervor of her conviction makes her pound the table emphatically in my memory. ONE metaphor. You get ONE metaphor in a piece of writing,[1] even in a book-length work. For the purposes of this piece, I will use Mary’s definition of a metaphor as nearly any use of figurative language.

Stripping down to one metaphor is hard. This stripping-down also means eliminating “dead metaphors” from the sermon’s language. Dead metaphors are the patterns of speech that began as figurative language but are now so commonly used we rarely think of them as non-literal:  “He really warmed up to her.” “It all went swimmingly.” “This sermon is total crap.” Mary showed me how each of these could be replaced with a single, more direct word, saving precious time and word-count in a homily.

We’ve been using metaphors for generations and calling them sermon illustrations, because from the time of Augustine and his peers, preachers have recognized that the stories of a first century Jewish man work within a very different material world than we inhabit. Jesus never told a parable about a smart phone, or revealed the best way to be Christian in a dispute over the use of reply-all on an email chain. Chorazin might be full of jerks, but if you can’t tell me what exit it is off the turnpike, why would I care about their woe? In a way, every act of interpretation, and certainly every application of Biblical narrative to everyday life is a figurative use of language; a translation of sorts.

More urgently, in a post-modern, post-Biblical literacy, post-Christendom world, even words that were thought to be well understood need some figurative explication. I read that same book about a shepherd interpreting Psalm 23, but more of my congregation is familiar with Cesar Milan’s version of animal husbandry. What even do we mean by “grace” or “repentance”? What does it actually mean to forgive someone’s trespasses as they have forgiven ours?  

Jesus used plenty of metaphors in his own preaching. The parables are metaphors, as lengthy as some are. Indeed in their span, they demonstrate what I treasure most about figurative language – it can be spacious, generous in a way that invites listeners or readers to do some of their own work of interpretation and translation. A seemingly simple story creates an entire world of meaning – or really, worlds of meaning. All preachers have had the experience of having someone thank them whole-heartedly for something they are very sure they did not say. Perhaps none of us have been greeted by an estranged father with the promise of a fatted calf, but we can all reflect on what it would mean for the most fraught of our familial relationships to be resolved not only in reconciliation but in joy. So in a way, I did say that you should call your sister. (More accurately, the Spirit whispered it to you while my lips were moving.)

This sermon printed above is mine from this past Easter Sunday, which fell on April Fools’ Day. In it I make a very silly joke into a metaphor for the pinnacle of salvation history. This may be pushing the one-metaphor-rule, but I think it works on two levels – first, the understanding (which turns out to have quite a long history of orthodox theology behind it!) of the resurrection as God’s great joke on us all, and second, the joke itself functioning as a parable, a large-scale metaphor for what it can feel like to walk through Holy Week. As faithful as we want to be to Christ, and as secure as our lives may be, it should and does feel like a dangerous thing to participate in the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday liturgies. Have we left open doors that ought to be locked tight? Does the crucifixion challenge our faith in ways that Sunday cannot recover? Is our greatest treasure left vulnerable to the thieves who see Holy Saturday as a prime opportunity?  And who – or what – are those thieves, then? Suggesting some ideas, without pinning the audience down to one villain, invites people to fill in their own details. Like a well-rehearsed joke, we learn to tolerate, even enjoy the set-up because we know the arc of the story and remember the relief of the punchline.

This is by no means a perfect sermon. (I’m sure there are typos galore; that Melville bit doesn’t work too well and makes me sound like an ass.) But it is one that brought me great joy in the preaching and the writing of it. Somewhere in some preaching textbook I have on my shelf, a better preacher than me encourages us to preach sermons we are excited about. You should wake up on Sunday eager to share with the congregation what you have learned from or coaxed out of a text. And this is, finally, why I’ll continue to preach in metaphor all the days I have left in the pulpit – figurative language has the ability to push us to new and exciting places in interpretation and application. A comparison that has never been made can make a millennia-old text suddenly new again. A story that has never been preached from can make a weird-sounding prophecy suddenly compelling. And a sermon that is as fun to preach as this one is can make a believer out of even the most jaded of pastors, come Easter Sunday.

Of course, all rules are meant to be broken – or flouted, to borrow a term from linguistics – but only in order to make a greater point.

Rev. Dr. Stephen Smith, Rector at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Dublin, OH

Mark 10: 17-27

In the musical, Fiddler on the Roof, the main character is Tevya; a poor milk man trying to deal with all the cultural changes swirling around him.  Through it all he enters an on-going conversation with God. Very early on he launches into a song that asks why he couldn’t be rich a man, with maybe a small fortune.

By the last verse the song takes an interesting twist, as Tevya sings,

“If I were rich I’d have the time that I like
To sit in the synagogue and pray,
And maybe have a seat by the eastern wall.
And I’d discuss the holy books
With the learned men, seven hours every day.
That would be the sweetest thing of all.
To be rich and to know the law inside and out.
He would be doubly blessed. And so is the man who approaches Jesus with a question about eternal life.
How do I get there?  We are told the man is rich.  He is already blessed with wealth.”

Jesus tells him to follow the commandments. He has done this.

He knows them inside and out. He is rich and has obviously discussed the holy books with learned men, maybe as much as seven hours every day.  He is truly blessed.

Jesus, however sees something. Mark tells us he looked at him and loved him. Maybe he loved him because he was doubly blessed with wealth and knowledge. But given Jesus’ further response, he may have loved him because he saw his potential. This man might be capable of fully trusting in God. He just might be able to leave it all behind and serve the world in God’s name. And so, Jesus’ invites him to do just that. But he is too attached to his wealth, to his knowledge, to maybe that seat by the eastern wall. He goes away, sad.

The disciples are incredulous. How could a person so doubly blessed by wealth and knowledge of the law, not be the absolute example of salvation?  Why ask him to do anything else?  If he is not doing enough, then who can be saved?

Only God can do it, Jesus tells his disciples. Only God.

Twenty-eight years ago, I became the rector of medium-sized Episcopal Church with an average Sunday attendance of 200, in an industrial city in Ohio.  I had only been ordained priest a few months. I had no idea what I was doing. Thank God there were a few parishioners who became my teachers.

I grew especially attached to Archie Carter. Archie was in his 90s and had outlived two wives. He couldn’t drive anymore, so I would bring him communion about once a month. He was very hospitable, and I felt very comfortable in his presence. So, I would ask him questions.

Once, when he was talking about many of his friends who died, I asked him if grief got easier as you got older.

“Hell no,” he said.  You’re just in grief a lot more often.”

After a while, he started asking me questions. He liked to ask how certain parishioners were doing, especially the ones who seemed the most cantankerous. I would say something about each person and then he would just start to laugh a little.

I would say, “What’s that all about?”

He would answer, “I can’t tell you,” and laugh a little more.

Archie taught me a lot; about grief, about aging, about accepting people for who they are, even with their secrets, and so much more.

Then, one day, Archie’s kidneys began to fail. He refused treatment.

I said, “Archie, without dialysis you’re going to die.”

“We’re all gonna die,” he replied.

“You’re the bravest man I know.”

“I’m not brave, just tired.”

And then he went on, “What this is teaching me though, is how to trust in God. Because, when you get to this point, the only one left that you can trust is God. You can’t trust your body. It just starts to do whatever it wants, with no never-mind from you. You can’t trust those you love.  They leave you or die. You can’t trust your doctors. They can’t cure old age, just prolong it. All you’ve got left is God.  And so, I trust God for whatever comes next. And I’m okay with that.  I only wish I had learned it when I was your age,”

I remember what you told me all those years ago Archie. It’s been 25 years, and I am still trying to learn to fully trust in God. I’m still trying, Archie.  I’m still trying.

Rev. Susan Ironside, Rector at Grace Episcopal Church in Madison, NJ

Judith 8:32-9:11

Sir Kenneth Robinson, an educational expert who has taught educators across the globe, has a theory that we were all born with creativity, each and every last one of us.  We had creativity oozing out of us at birth.  But then life crushed it out of us.  He feels that schools are often the biggest contributors to the task of pummeling creativity, what with their fixation on rules and testing, But we in the Church probably do our part to quash creativity whenever we can pitch in with that effort, because of our own devotion to rules and order.  

When he lectures, Sir Kenneth often tells the story of a little girl in art class. She was six and she was drawing, and the teacher noticed because this little girl hardly ever paid attention. Yet in this drawing lesson she did. The teacher was fascinated, and went over to her and asked, “What are you drawing?”

And the girl said, “I’m drawing a picture of God.”

The teacher said, “But nobody knows what God looks like.” 

The girl replied, “Well, they will in a minute.”

Today the Church remembers Joan of Arc, the teenager who saved France.  At the age of 13 she heard the voice of God. Who knows what that even sounded like?  God and Joan had actual conversations for years.  Whatever they talked about, Joan became convinced that she—a peasant teenager—was the one who could save France.  And she did.   After no small amount of vetting, including the odd task of picking Charles VII out of a crowd when he was wearing a disguise, (which sounds creepy) and having to prove her virginity (which sounds chilling), Joan was actually put in a leadership role, and commanded knights to victory.  City after city fell to the army that she helped lead. 

After her military victory, she wanted to go home, but that wasn’t in the cards.  She was captured.   And the king whose army she had deftly led to victory couldn’t be bothered to ransom her from her captors.  The inevitable heresy trial ensued, because who in their right mind could take seriously a teenager who claimed to hear the voice of God?

At her trial, those who had authority over whether she would live or die said to Joan, “You say God speaks to you, but it’s only your imagination.”

She responded, “How else would God speak to me, if not through my imagination?”

It is fitting that on the day we remember Joan, we hear the story of Judith.  Well, some of it anyway.   Judith is the story of a woman—a widow—who used her intellect, resources, and even her body to save the Israelites from the Assyrians. 

Judith, we hear, had an unusual prayer life.  She asked God to make her a gifted liar, so she could plausibly seduce the head of the Assyrian army, which is exactly what she did.  She got him nice and drunk, and then beheaded him.  In so doing, she secured a vital military victory for the tribe.  It’s an amazing story.   Better beach reading this summer you will not find.

The lectionary gives us only a small snippet of her story on Joan of Arc’s Feast Day, We hear Judith pray, but before that she declares. “Listen to me. I am about to do something that will go down through all generations of our descendants.” 

And she was right.  She was right not only about what she was about to do, but also that generations of people, her decedents, would be talking about her action. And here we are, thousands of years later, and a world away, talking about her.   

I personally long for that kind of boldness in my life, to announce at the breakfast table before I leave the house in the morning that the work that I am about to do will be the stuff of legend.

So what do we make of these Spiritual Aunts of ours, Joan and Judith?

Maybe you have to be a teenager to take such risks, as our Aunt Joan did, to see God with your imagination.  Teenagers are so reckless! And don’t argue with them when it comes to what they do or do not believe about God. A teenager will look you straight in the eye and dare you to question that they have heard the voice of God or not.

Maybe you have to be a widow whose knowledge of God is so intimate that you can ask God to make you a good liar so you can accomplish dangerous things.    Widows know what it is like to lose, and don’t tell them for a moment that life isn’t complicated. Widows have stood on the threshold of grief and devastation and somehow kept on living, making a life in a world that often prefers people—women in particular—neatly partnered and attached to on ordinary household.

Whatever else can be said of us, we who are preachers, claim that at some point, we heard God calling.  Like Joan did.  Maybe it wasn’t a clear voice, or an actual conversation.  But we got some message at some point along the way that we were supposed to do something. So we submitted to a vetting process that was peculiar and exhausting. And like Judith, we have all, I suspect, asked God to make us good liars.  At least I have. Most of us have prayed and asked God to make us the kind of women and men who will look someone straight in the eyes sound plausible when we say that we know for sure that God loves them and is present with them, even on those days when (in our heart of hearts) we find them deeply annoying, or question if God can love anyone because we feel so unlovable ourselves, or we find our own lives so confusing.

What our great Aunts Joan and Judith knew is that when you are willing to fall into God’s embrace with nakedness and boldness you show people what God looks like, you draw a picture with your life so other people can see the God you see in your imagination.

That is our job as preachers. I don’t simply mean that we are to find boldness and creativity, although life will more colorful and preaching more vibrant when we do. But the task is greater.   Our job is to help the people in the assembly find their own boldness. So they can draw their own picture of God.

The best pictures of God are drawn by six year old girls, and all of God’s people. 

The Mom who drags herself to the dance recital after an exhausting day at work, even though the child who is dancing on the stage called her a jerk over breakfast and announced that she was an awful parent.  But that evening in the school auditorium, that mom drew a picture of the God who teaches, “love keeps no record of wrongs.”

An insurance agent in my parish drew a picture of God after a storm devastated a widow’s house, leaving her homeless. Telling no one, not even his Rector, this man was on the phone for hours, using his knowledge of the industry to navigate the complexities of what needed to happen next, even though it was someone else’s job and someone else’s insurance company.  That man drew the most stunning picture of God, an illustration of how when we are taking care of an old lady who has a tree fall on the only house she has ever known, we are actually doing nothing less than giving shelter to Jesus.

The best pictures of God are drawn by people like the teacher in my community who made flashcards on her own 3×5 index cards for the student whose undocumented parents couldn’t possibly afford them.  That teacher drew a stunning illustration of the God who welcomes the stranger and gathers the little child.

All of those things happened in my ordinary life and my ordinary parish.  And those stories are the stuff of legend. 

Our job is to put a blank piece of paper in front of the assembly so that they can draw a picture of God, the God that they see, the God they have come to know in Jesus through the stories of our ancestors and through his Body the Church.   

It is our job to hold a paper in front of another person so that they can sit at their breakfast table in the morning and announce, “Listen to me.  I am about to do something that will go down for generations.  In a few minutes, people will see what God looks like.”