Proclaim the Hope

The most devastating waves of hatred exercised in violence betray an underlying sense of fear and fatalism in those perpetrating such atrocities. I sometimes wonder what drives people to the precipice where they no longer see any hope for alternative ways to change their world than to destroy others. Perhaps many of these tragedies might have been avoided if the Church had better articulated its message of hope, if it did not so often succumbed to the same tragic despair that can no longer imagine new possibilities from dead ends? How devastatingly dull our witness is when it is incapable of offering hope to the hopeless. Salt that has lost its saltiness is thrown away and trampled under foot. May God revive the imagination of the Church for these days. May the Church and its disciples be light in the dark places.


Testimony to Otherwise

Sometimes life just seems like there is no possibility of something changing.  We make arguments for it all the time.  “Well, that’s just how it’s always been.”  Or, “I’m sorry, but we (I) didn’t have a choice in the matter.”  Life and reality just seem to be given to us as if there are no real alternative, no real options.  Life is what it is and what it always will be.  The person writing Ecclesiastes felt this way: “There’s nothing new under the sun.” 

            This plays itself out in a number of different arenas of life: government, work, family, and, sometimes, the Church.  In actuality, what underlies many of these arenas is a culture that has significantly shaped us to think and act in specific ways and always on its own terms.  Thus, when our “rights” are trampled by someone else, we feel the need to secure our privileges.  And, most of the time, this is done through violence.  Violence here is used in its broadest sense (not simply physical violence).  And, it happens in all areas of life.  Scripture, in fact, is full of examples (I’ll use physical violence, as an example): Cain kills Abel, Herod and Pharaoh slay children and David has Uriah killed, Eli’s sons use the Ark as a tool of war and to legitimate their own reign of terror (which backfires).  Maintaining the illusion of certainty, that there is no alternative to the way things are, requires brute force and strength… which ultimately produces death and suffering, especially among the weak and disadvantaged of any society.

            The Gospel is a dangerous alternative in a world of certainty.  It is a “testimony to otherwise.”  It suggests that the current arrangements of this world are death-dealing traps.  The Gospel is a call to a renewed imagination that goes beyond the surface of reality and looks to discern God’s alternative Kingdom in the midst of broken creation.  Jesus has some very peculiar words, like: “blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who are persecuted…”

            We look at that description of the Kingdom of Heaven and wonder: “How are those people ‘blessed?’”  We wonder how something is so possible when the exact opposite seems to be true in our world.  Have our imaginations not been so shaped by our culture and our world that we cannot see, nor understand, the Kingdom of God? 

            I think it is important and imperative, especially during this time of season, to remember where our allegiance truly lies.  The Kingdom is not a call to security or to certainty, as if we can explain everything and control it.  The Church is a testimony to otherwise in the midst of a world that cannot see or perceive God’s Kingdom way.  Living faithfully in a world of ideological idolatry opens up new imaginative possibilities for life in the present, as well as, the future.  Rather than saying, “That’s the way it’s always been.”  Let us ask, “Is that the way God would want it to be?”


“The Preaching Life” by Barbara Brown Taylor

We are increasingly in a Post-Christian context.  The Church and the world are disillusioned.  Taylor makes the argument that this is a great place to be, if one has eyes of faith to see.  In fact, disillusionment unmasks the lies and urges us to search deeper.  Our idols are unveiled and a more mysterious, dynamic vision of God is revealed.

The call is an essential part of the preaching task.  We are all called to follow Christ (vocation), but each is called to follow Christ using their unique spiritual gifts (office).  The pastor is one among many equal callings.  But, it is still a lofty calling to equip the believers to do every good work.  Christians are called to be mindful of the sacramental nature in the mundane elements of life.  God is at work and calls us to see grace already present in the world.

This is an imaginative act.  That’s not to say that it is an act of fantasy.  Instead, it is the ability to see with eyes of faith the underlying reality of God present and at work.  Scripture plays an important role in this imaginative work.  We don’t only read Scripture but Scripture reads us.  That is to say, that life is viewed through a new light that gives us new eyes for the situations in which we find ourselves.  We wrestle with the text (despite its “human fingerprints”), finding that there is something more at work than the human element.  The Spirit breathes new life through the pages of these texts, even if we cannot “explain” them all.

The liturgy of worship connects us together, both past and present.  Worship, as Taylor suggests, is like a dance whose elements we have practiced for so long that they have become engrained in us.  They become secondary nature.  Word and Table shape the identity of the community by engaging all of the senses.  God is made known through the tangible elements, teaching us that there is no real separation between the sacred and the secular.  The rhythms of the liturgy inform the rhythms of our daily life outside of the sanctuary.

The sermon is an interesting phenomenon.  Taylor states that the parts of sermon construction can be taught, but it is difficult to teach how those parts go together.  In mentioning her own “best” and “worst” sermons, she highlights the fact that there is more at work than just the preacher.  It is a triangular relationship between God, people, and preacher that make up the sermon.  Imbalance in one area is like a three-legged stool that is unstable and likely to fall over.  As preachers, it is important to recognize this and not take ourselves too seriously.  What may seem like brilliance to us can fall flat to a congregation.  What may feel like a poor sermon may be given life by the Spirit in ways that we cannot imagine.  What matters most is that we are entrusting ourselves in that preaching to the One who is the Word.

The final chapters are a few of Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermons.  I will summarize what I learned from those sermons for the art of preaching.  One of the things that struck me about her sermons was the fact that she weaves stories throughout her preaching of the text.  These stories unlock or unfold something in the text that may not have been directly visible before.  The use of stories invites the reader, sometimes unwittingly, to go along for the journey to meet the God of Scripture.

Taylor also wrestles with the text and the questions of the congregation effectively.  She gives voice to their concerns and acknowledges the difficulties in the passage.  However, the sermon always ends with a Gospel message revealing how God is at work and present in the text.  There is concrete language used, but her sermons utilize language to evoke the realities of the text in her hearers.