I Gave Up Manuscript Preaching for Lent

On Monday mornings, I review my sermon video from the day before. (The churches I serve are 40 and 20 in regular weekly attendance, and I use the Zoom Q2HD in the first service, which is at the larger church. This is not some high-budget televised or even live-streamed thing, so don’t use the excuse that your preaching assignment is too small to be worth recording and reviewing. Regarding expense, the Zoom plus memory card was sub-$200, and I use a free video editor, a free audio editor, a free podcasting service which iTunes picks up and lists for free, and then post the audio on a free Facebook page, so even the smallest church can be sold on this investment in good preaching.)

My notes range from: “good emotions in announcements” to “energy ebbs at…” to “the sermon is too long because…” to “shave your face before next week.” For almost the entire time that I have been doing this (July of last year), I have been annoying myself with lack of eye contact, and months ago I realized that using a manuscript was keeping me from actually learning how to preach.

Transitioning off of manuscripts is a cold turkey process. Knowing that, I kept putting it off until some utopian week when I would have extra time to prepare and then make the jump. (N.B.: Those weeks don’t exist, and somewhere in my heart of hearts, I’ve known that the whole time.)

Finally, I picked up Preaching on Your Feet: Connecting God and the Audience in the Preachable Moment by Fred Lybrand because it was really cheap on Kindle one day. It’s not a great book, but it is a great kick in the pants. And so I decided to give up manuscript preaching for Lent.

The thought of this scared me so much that I started a few weeks early, and I did it not just without manuscript but without notes at all. I hated the results the first week, and it was hard to believe it would improve, but I was committed. Consider how in Mario Kart everyone who is good uses the Manual Mode, but if you start out on Automatic, you will experience a dip in your abilities when you make the switch to Manual. I definitely experienced a dip going from manuscript to no notes. But…no one in my churches noticed (or if they did, it wasn’t any worse than any other dips I’ve had for other reasons).

This week, however, I think I may have preached better than I have ever preached in these two churches. Yes, I went long. (Quick! Can I modify Communion without messing up something important? No. Quick! Which verses of the closing hymn should we cut? The middle ones, for no good reason.) I also was so much more present to the congregation, and I can see it on the video. It was so encouraging, even as I already know enough about preaching that it is never going to be just up-and-up-and-up.

It’s Monday again. Better start sermonizing.

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If you’re going to die, do it like God did.

Yesterday morning I had the privilege of looking a bunch of people in the eye one-by-one and smudging up their foreheads a bit as I called them by name and told them, “I just want to remind you: you are going to die. Soon.”

Okay, no, I didn’t say that. I said it the proper, church-y way: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But, because I had mentioned in my homily how much preaching an Ash Wednesday service reminds me of preaching a funeral, and that that is exactly what the words and the ashes mean, I did have one of my parishioners smile back at me and reply, “Yup. Sooner rather than later.”

Laughing at death in a church. I think that’s exactly where we should laugh at death, because, no, it doesn’t seem right to laugh at death at a funeral. There is, after all, a time to grieve. But we do laugh and rejoice in the face of death, not because death has no power, but because it has no ultimate power (Life:Death::Lightning:Lightning Bug). There is a certain amount that Christians really do need to “Eat, drink, and be merry” in the face of death’s nearness.

It’s a combination of preaching week after week for all but four Sundays since last July plus spending some time lately with the Apostolic Fathers and now Justin Martyr that makes me see just how deeply strange is this thing we call Christian life. All the stories are strange, but old stories from any source are always strange. No, the strangest part of this Christian life is not those old stories but how we say they are not old–they are new and they are our story.

The things Christians do and call faithful worship evidence their truth in the reality that if we are not pointing to and participating in the Truth, then we are an ornate, expensive, time-wasting, needlessly painful circus act. Early Christians knew this as they gathered together and shared the Lord’s Supper, still repeating “This is my body. This is my blood.” They claimed his Body and Blood were true food and drink, fully aware that they were being accused of cannibalism. They sang songs and found joy and peace and hope in their loser God-Man (which is what again?), fully aware they were being called godless for rejecting all their culture’s gods in favor of this one god who was weak enough and dumb enough to get killed.

But for those early Christians, and for twenty-one Copts this week, and for each one of us who worships Jesus Christ, we believe that the God Who Has Died is the only god who can meet us even in death, the only god who has any right at all to tell us about Life.

Dead Jesus

Lecturing vs. Preaching

The Lecture on the Mount.

Yesterday, I visited one of my parishioners and her husband at their home. It was my first time having a conversation with her apart from brief Sunday morning pleasantries, and so I had a lot to learn. For my particular context, place matters a lot. If you weren’t born here, but have only lived here for 50-60 years, then you aren’t from here. So there are those facts of place and the facts of family–kids, grandkids, siblings, parents–including how close they are geographically and emotionally. But I noticed I have to push myself to make that more difficult turn, to guide the conversation toward current life experiences, if the visit is to make it to the level of excellence.

Today, I sat down to watch and listen to my sermon from Sunday. In the course of watching several weeks of sermons, I have noticed that an unhelpful direction my sermons can take is toward the lecture. The problem stems from my approach, which has been (1) to present the information of Scripture in an accessible way through storytelling and through elucidating historical, cultural, religious, anthropological, political, psychological, and other details and then (2) to make the application to the lives of my parishioners today. What I’ve come to realize is that most of my congregation isn’t as interested as I am in Part 1 (nor do they tend to find it as helpful), and that the way that I pursue it can easily make someone exhausted before they get to a more nutritive Part 2, so they aren’t able to receive that either.

I noticed this two-part design at about the same time that I simply Googled, “What is the difference between a lecture and a sermon?” One helpful distinction: a lecture is giving information to an audience, while a sermon is focused on transformation. The second distinction builds from there: in a sermon, all the information should be in service of the application, rather than simply tacking application on to the information (my tendency). What I am attempting to do now is to live this out to the extreme: a sermon doesn’t just need an application piece; a sermon is an application.

This approach to preaching requires that any information that isn’t directed to the application is left on the editing room floor. By information, I mean all that stuff that is interesting to me and could be helpful in a different context, but which is neither interesting nor helpful in this particular context. A different context could be an academic course, or a Bible study, a presentation to other pastors, a blog post, or simply the next time I preach on the same text to the same congregation.

This application-centered approach sounds a lot like topical preaching, but (for me right now) it isn’t. The topic is (I pray) whatever Jesus wanted to say or do in the Gospel lesson assigned to the particular Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary (or whatever is going on in whichever other assigned text). So maybe it’s not that it’s not topical preaching at all, but that it’s good topical preaching. Or maybe it’s good exegetical preaching. Or just good preaching. I’d be happy with that.

Preaching Small

One of the problem areas I have begun to notice when critiquing my own preaching is my tendency to add theologically dense passages, a practice which I am convinced is never helpful and ever-tempting. From just this past week, part of my conclusion:

This is the work that Christ has done. By the power of the Holy Spirit coming upon the Virgin Mary, at his birth God the Son was united not just with humanity, but with the entire creation. In his death, Jesus showed he would die for love of a dying creation. In his resurrection, he showed he will resurrect and redeem all of creation, completing that task when he returns in glory, but beginning that task in us now.

On a given Sunday morning, I have been working hard for twenty-plus minutes to help a whole congregation to gel as one and to focus in on something important the Lord is saying to us, and then right at the climax, I shout, “Look over there!”

Why do I do it?

First, I am inexperienced. I’ll make sure to put that out there. Second, I like theology. Third, I like words.

Something more important is happening, though: I have failed to recognize that the sermon as we generally define it—that period of exegeting Scripture, comforting and challenging a congregation—is only one part of the proclamation of the Gospel which happens in Christian worship. The sermon is only one piece of the Sunday liturgy, which is only one day in a liturgical year, which is only one year in the life of a Christian, which is only one life in the communion of saints.

I am small, and that is a good thing. Those twinned truths are the beginning of worship, and as such they need to form my sermon each week. My sermon is small, and that is a good thing. I don’t need to say or do everything. I need to do one part. I need to say one thing. And I need to let everyone and everything else perform their parts.

Very practically on a Sunday morning, our prayers are part of the proclamation, and so is our singing, our offering, our gathered prayer, and so is the Creed, and so is our confession and absolution, and so is our gathering at the Table. The challenge is this: can I let those things bear the load of the proclamation, so that my small part we call “sermon” can be comfortable just being its small but important self?

Revisiting Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ

Passion of the christ poster

Like most other US Christians, in 2004 I saw The Passion of the Christ in the theater. I was dismissive of it, saw its depiction of Christ’s suffering as purely physical, was bored by the storytelling, troubled by the portrayal of Satan by a female actor, and I know I called its violence pornographic. In the ten years since, I’ve avoided several screenings organized by churches during Lent.

Then, a week ago, on Good Friday, I streamed it on Netflix. And I thought it was great.

The Passion of the Christ is a very strange film, because it is one in which you have to know the story beforehand in order to understand what is happening. I cannot think of a another case where I would praise a film adaptation of a book that worked that way. Imagine, for instance, a film adaptation of Macbeth, but only Acts Four and Five are covered, with a few references to past scenes thrown in, which you assume are meaningful to the people who know the story, but which are meaningless to you as the viewer.

Rotten Tomatoes (recording a 49% from All Critics and 80% from Audience) summarizes the critical response: “The graphic details of Jesus’ torture make the movie tough to sit through and obscure whatever message it is trying to convey.” That’s right: the graphic details make a story which is difficult to follow and unclear in its purpose even more difficult to follow and even less clear in its purpose.

Passion scourge

While that represents the mainstream of critical responses, another strong trend of criticism (mainly among Christians who mostly liked the movie) lamented that while the movie was supposedly dedicated to showing every gruesome detail with historical accuracy, it failed at some points. The nails went in Jesus’ hands, some said, when everybody knows they would have actually gone into his wrists, or he would have fallen off the cross from his own weight against weak flesh. My own part in this stream was that I wondered aloud (even as I knew) why Gibson wouldn’t depict a naked Jesus on the cross.

I returned to the 2004 film ten years later prompted by a conversation with my wife in which she said she found the movie meaningful, and in tearing down the movie I found myself tearing down her (and millions of other people). Why is it that 80% of the people who saw The Passion disagreed with me and most established critics? (While a decent question, honestly, I know it’s not for the reason I came to my own change of view.)

My own reason is that (I think) I’ve come to see The Passion of the Christ for what it is rather than what I thought it was or should be. Film critics expected and therefore saw a film that could be judged by the genre conventions of narrative filmmaking and of film adaptations of preexisting works and of other film adaptations of the life of Jesus. Evangelical Christians saw a Passion that brought Hollywood money to bear on telling the most important part of the Most Important Story. Liberal (this is before “progressive” was the preferred term) Christians saw a Passion marred by a right-wing fringe Catholic filmmaker’s bloody misunderstanding of what atonement is and who the God of Jesus is.

Mel-Gibson-and-Jim-Caviez-007

In reality, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a big-budget film continuation of and representation of a hundreds of years’ old tradition of Roman Catholic devotional art focused on the suffering and death of Jesus. This is why so many of the scenes are composed like classical paintings and why parts of the narrative make no sense without a knowledge of the Stations of the Cross and the various extra-Biblical traditions of how the Passion happened. It’s also why Jesus is not shown naked and why the nails go through the palms of his hands rather than through his wrists. The biggest clue, however, to Gibson’s real intention, however, was right in front of our noses the whole time: the movie’s title.

The Passion of the Christ as a phrase is a theological interpretation of the suffering and death of Jesus of Nazareth from inside particular theological, devotional, and artistic traditions. “Christ” makes particular claims about who Jesus is, and “Passion” is a much different term than “Death” or “Crucifixion” or even the basic English translation, “Suffering.”

Finally, this doesn’t mean that we cannot judge the Catholic devotional interpretative traditions or the film itself on any merits or against any standards we choose. It is just to say that when we do, we should recognize we are no longer judging the work by its own intentions or on its own terms.

The Crucifixion with St Bridget in Adoration

The Cross Through a Trinitarian Lens

Marc Chagall, White Crucifixion

Augustine writes in Bk. IV, Ch. 3 of De Trinitate,

Now there are four things to be considered in every sacrifice: whom it is offered to, whom it is offered by, what it is that is offered, and whom it is offered for. And this one true mediator, in reconciling us to God by his sacrifice of peace, would remain one with him to whom he offered it, and make one in himself those for whom he offered it, and be himself who offered it one and the same as what he offered.

 

I don’t know about which theological conversations are the popular ones in other Christian traditions, but evangelicals and liberal Protestants talk a lot about the relationship between violence and the atonement. The views which at least recognize that this is a problem worth reckoning with are as far-ranging as A.) Insisting we recognize Christ as victim of the evil of violence (versus God as promoter of violence for our salvation) to X.) Decentralizing the Cross as the place where reconciliation is accomplished (see Delores S. Williams’ Sisters in the Wilderness). [I leave out Y and Z, because there probably are a Y and a Z out beyond Williams.]

On this Good Friday, what are we thinking about the Cross? What are we hearing in sermons today (and what are we preaching)? What do we believe happened on the Cross in time and in eternity? Finally, how do we make sense of the Cross’ violence?

Scriptures throughout the Old and New Testament undeniably and regularly speak of God’s reconciliation with humankind and all of Creation in the language of sacrifice. However, there are wrong ways and right ways (and worse ways and better ways) to understand that sacrificial language and what it says about the character of God. One route that we cannot take when approaching these texts is this: contrary to some broad brushstrokes takes on human history brought to bear on Biblical criticism (whether by Borg/Crossan or Girard), there is not some monolithic, bloodthirsty, primitive humanity that can be blamed for twisting up the Gospel into an unrecognizable state, marred by humans’ love of violence.

I am convinced that all our arguments are really about one question: Who is God? This is why I quote Augustine. When Christians talk about God at all, we are talking about the Trinity (Gregory Nazianzen, memorably: “When I say God, I mean Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”). Our talk of the atonement and of the Cross and of sacrifice is just one of many areas in which we tend to forget this and to start talking of a God who is not Trinitarian (that is, a “God’ who is not God).

In our beliefs, in our thinking, in our reading, in our speech, in our arguments, is the Cross a Trinitarian action of God? Does our Jesus “remain one with him to whom he offered” himself? If not, our Cross is not the Cross of Christ, and our atonement is not the one which God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–accomplished. But, if Jesus crucified indeed remains one with the Godhead, then how we must re-understand the nature of our atonement with God and what the Cross has to do with it?


Bonus Link: “Pope Francis, Marc Chagall and the Jews” (RNS)

 

Tuesday Reading Roundup

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. I quoted it yesterday and raved about it last week. Read Wolf Hall, then read this. (Or if someone else already has Wolf Hall checked out from your library, read Bring Up the Bodies then Wolf Hall.)

“Emptying the Bell: An Interview with Peter Matthiessen” by Lawrence Shainberg. In the wake of Matthiessen’s death this past week, Daniel Burke (@BurkeCNN) tweeted the link to this illuminating piece from the Fall 1993 issue of Tricycle.

“How to read the Bible” by Celia Wolff. Wolff is a Th.D. candidate at Duke, and she has provided with this post a fantastic, brief way for anyone (whether Biblical scholar, theologian, preacher, layperson, or reader of the Bible as literature) to learn to read the Bible better. Seriously, if you are interested in the Bible at any level or in any way, read this, post it to your Facebook wall, tweet it, email it to your church’s preacher(s). (Thanks for serving us all with this one, Celia! However this post relates to bigger projects you’re working on, you are doing it right.)

“Learning guitar licks and other tricks at Afghanistan’s Rock School Kabul” by Larisa Epatko. A burgeoning rock scene in Kabul is being helped along by music educators.

“Life Is Short, Proust Is Long” by James Camp. It’s not so much that I agree with this fairly critical read of what SpritzInc.com is trying to do for the world of reading, but that conversations with friends about this article brought me back around to reassessing the usefulness of speed-reading in my own life.

On the Trinity by AugustineDoesn’t need my recommendation, but if you’re familiar with it, I’m about to begin Book IV. Also, buy the edition I linked to. The footnotes and various introductions written by translator Edmund Hill are fantastic.

“The Other’s Language: Jacques Derrida Interviews Ornette Coleman, 23 June 1997” translated by Timothy S. Murphy. A beautiful and natural pairing that I would not have known to wish for, if I had not learned this week that it happened.

“The Praying Habit: Catholic” by Carolyn Browender. Over at Killing the Buddha, Browender has been pursuing a Lenten discipline of praying within various traditions other than her own (and you can see them all here). In this particular post, she talks through her relationship to Catholicism, her favorite saints, and her attempts at learning the rosary, along the way describing how her relationship with all of that is one of both consternation and blessing.

The Sonnets of William Shakespeare. Reading about Henry VIII has me wanting to read more about the other Henrys and about Elizabeth I, which leads me to Shakespeare. From Sonnet III:

Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime:
So thou through windows of thine age shall see
Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time.


Tuesday Reading Roundup has been a regular feature of this blog and its predecessor for several years. Entries must: 1) Have been read by me in the previous week; 2) Have been particularly interesting, thought- or conversation-provoking, and/or entertaining.