A matter of trust and imagination.
I do that by suggesting that we remember the problem of Babel. The problem, which has been rehearsed over and over and over again for us, was the misdirected ambition, pride, and arrogance of people who understood one another. Think about that. The problem wasn't that they didn't know what to do, or know one another, or understand one another; it was their universal understanding of one another that enabled them to translate that capacity for understanding into an act that actually rather annoyed God. So, the parable of Babel is taking power and resources, which we take for granted, and using them for an ill purpose: "We shall build a proud tower even unto heaven"--an exercise in understanding, in cooperation, and in all of the urban values that most of us appreciate, which is why the story of Babel is so disconcerting to most of us, because the very qualities that annoyed God in Babel are the qualities to which most of us have aspired in our lives: understanding, cooperation, a common task, getting as near to heaven as possible, and building proud towers. It is God who rains--literally--on that parade, and interrupts this cooperative venture, and one might even say interrupts this ecumenical venture. You Lutherans might want to think carefully about the paths you have begun, at long last, to tread, and the confusions amongst them.
The story of the tower of Babel is not my text, but I ask us to think about inverted values as I try to undermine the paradigm that has suggested Babel as something to deal with. Of course your trustees took Babel to be now--the confusion of tongues, and the fact that some of us speak in language that others do not understand, and the resulting chaos and confusion. These lectures occur in Eastertide, looking forward to the clarification of tongues that occurs at Pentecost, when confusion is meant to be dispersed by the power of the Holy Spirit, and so it suggests that Babel is a good place to be because we have something to look forward to that is clearer: deeper understanding, and a subversion of our desires and fears, and a confirmation of our understanding of God's purposes and movement among us. If you are groping for what you might say in your Pentecost sermon, maybe this is one of those freebies for which you come to lectures such as these, groping for yet one more unused illustration from a foreigner; and I give you permission to do with it whatever you wish. Remember, in this age of anxious attribution of sources, all work and no plagiarism makes Jack or Jane a dull preacher. I give it to you for all that it's worth.
In the first lecture I talked about the new paradigm in which we find ourselves, which is turning a dilemma into an opportunity--that is, dealing with people who don't speak our language and who are interested in what we might have to say, which therefore presents a new opportunity for preaching, in my opinion--a golden opportunity for the rehabilitation of the sermon. Marcus Borg has a wonderful set of constructs, which he uses in the titles of his books on rediscovering Jesus for the first time and rereading the Bible for the first time, (1) and the thing that makes the titles interesting is the notion that we are recovering something with which we were once familiar but which we now hear differently and in a different voice. I suggest to preachers (among the most paranoid people I know) that this is our moment, our time. To those of you who are beginning this exercise, to those few seminarians who have managed to stagger up at this early hour of the day and find yourselves in these strange circumstances known as the Seminary Chapel, I would say to you scattered few that your best years are ahead of you and that thy sermons that you dread are filled with "blessings round your head," to paraphrase one of the old psalm paraphrases. To the rest of us, who are long in the tooth, I want to say that our best years, and the best years of what we do, are also ahead of us. No matter how distinguished our careers might have been up to this point, or how bad, or how mediocre, better days are in store for us. That is the eschatological hope, and it's not just a hope; I think it is a fact for what it is that we do.
There are certain requirements, however, that will make it so, certain expectations that will bring it to pass, a certain sense of confidence without which it will be impossible for us to proceed outside this dangerous paradigm and outside of this cloud of paranoia, and it is my task today to try to suggest to you how that may be done. Thus, my topic this morning is "A Matter of Trust and Imagination." I am suggesting that the two elements essential to the performance of our task--and I use that word performance quite seriously--are trust and imagination, and that both in equal measure are essential to the worthwhile task of preaching. I will illustrate as we move along.
The setting of this is another piece of conventional wisdom. Last night the conventional wisdom--the paradigm of which I spoke--was that we speak in an obscure tongue, that nobody is particularly interested in it, and that the world is moving far beyond the religious dimension with which most of us are familiar. This morning the conventional wisdom against which I wish to speak is that the sermon itself is no longer a suitable or appropriate device with which to communicate in this age of communication. No less an authority than The New York Times, early in this spring term, actually on March 30, 2002, ran an article with the headline, "An Era When the Art of the Sermon has Declined." That's the usual piece of tripe from The New York Times, the notion that nobody has the attention span to listen to one person talking to them for more than three or four minutes, that the literary quality of the sermon as an art form has long ceased to be recognized as such, that both preachers and listeners have lost confidence in this particular way of communication, and that it ever persists in its downward spiral.
What motivated this piece of analysis was a lawsuit in the ecclesiastical courts of the Episcopal church, I believe in the diocese of Michigan, where a rector was brought up on charges of plagiarism by people in his parish who couldn't get him on anything else. It had to be true, because if the Episcopalians are worried about sermons, there is something very very awry in the state of Denmark! The charge was that their rector had taken his sermons from the Internet and was using them without attribution, claiming them as his own. This thing went through the ecclesiastical courts, and I was actually asked if I would be an expert witness both for the prosecution and for the defense, and one of the wisest things I ever did was to decline to serve in either capacity. When the defense lawyer called me--these are ecclesiastical lawyers, a very special breed--I cited the little line that I gave you at the beginning: "All work and no plagiarism makes Jack or Jane a dull preacher;" and he said he was afraid that would not be altogether helpful to the cause. So, I withdrew before I was asked to withdraw.
It's not the subject of that trial that intrigues me so much as The New York Times account of it, that preachers and preaching are in such a desperate situation that they have to resort to canned ideas, canned sermons, predigested thoughts in little gobbets, simply to fill in the time between the Gospel and the 'comfortable word,' or prayer of consecration.
For a Baptist, as I am, that is a strange observation; and as I have enjoyed my experience among the Lutherans during these now four Hein Fry Lectures, one of the things I have asked of my host, or the person who has ferried me around in each place where I have been, is, How much time do I have in the liturgy, for the sermon? I know I have 55 minutes plus for the lectures, but I ask where the sermon works into the liturgy. As a rule I have been told that I have somewhere between "six, max," or maybe eight, or maybe twelve, or (grudgingly) maybe fifteen minutes, but that would be really taking up a great deal of time of the occasion. I have been told that here--without violating any confidences--it is the custom to speak for about seven minutes, and if you exceed that you get a letter from the dean or the president. So, Mr. President, wherever you are, I look forward to several letters from you today, and I will keep them where I keep letters of that sort.
This is in part the issue, however, and it raises a paradox. Bill Coffin, in his heyday at Yale, used to describe the little sermon as "sermonettes for Christianettes," and his view was--and Bill was not a longwinded Baptist preacher, he was a Presbyterian by ordination--that you needed a rather stiff diet with which to cope in a tradition that in a sense had invented the sermon as the eighth sacrament. I take that rather seriously, as an opportunity; and the paradox that faces us, it seems to me, as people of the Word, is that one of the great Lutheran inheritances that we have all received and cherished is not a Lutheran or a Reformation conceit but a Lutheran and Reformation gift to the whole church. Think about this: We probably have more reading of Scripture now in our services than at any point in the history of our church: an Old Testament lesson, a psalm, an epistle, and a gospel: four hunks of Scripture. We live in an age in which people know less and less and less about any of that Scripture, which is helpful, liturgically, in the face of this preponderance of Scripture and the abysmal illiteracy on the part of our people, because the sermon has become shorter and shorter and shorter. It strikes me that something is wrong in that syllabus, and one must begin to ask what it is.
I hear your answers before you're prepared to give them, and I know exactly what you're thinking right now: "Now look, we are a eucharistically-centered body, we have recovered the ancient liturgical rites of the church, and how are we to preach these long-winded, long-stemmed sermonic commentaries on these four pieces of Scripture, communicate with our people, celebrate the holy mysteries, and get it all done in 55 minutes?" Well, that's your problem. There is an obvious answer to it, which you do not hear; but you will hear it today, at least from me.
The obvious answer is that you cannot sustain the people of God on such a thin diet of exposition and proclamation. You simply cannot do it. That is why our people, by and large, are anemic both scripturally and doctrinally. They are well fed in the body and blood of Christ, but that is not the only diet to which the faithful have been summoned, and therefore the responsibility for not feeding them adequately on the Word of God is not their fault, although they will make it difficult to feed them otherwise. We somehow have introduced into the ecclesiastical culture the secular cultural values of the limited time span, the notion of constant entertainment, the fast movement that is characteristic of the talk show. Think about the talk show. Here we have invented this format for entertainment called the talk show, everything from Oprah to Jay Leno, in an age when we seemingly have less and less to say to one another. That is a paradox, and the church's job, in my opinion, is to transcend conventional paradoxes.
This is not just an argument for longer sermons. A long sermon is not necessarily a good sermon, but neither is a short sermon necessarily a good sermon, and one might pose the question: Is it better to have a long bad sermon or a short bad sermon? That you might think about as you compose, and if you want to say that all sermons are bad by definition, then what chance does one have to improve upon that situation? Most of us are of the view, alas, that we should quit while we're ahead; and we're ahead usually about six or seven minutes into it, and after that it is usually groping or repetition, and therefore we should bring it to a merciful close on behalf of everybody.
It must be clear to you that I am not particularly in favor of, and do not wish to encourage, what I call these "warm murmurings" over the gospel. Warm murmurings over the gospel feed very few people, and if I can do anything in this process, I want to encourage you to do more than massage the text. My predecessor in The Memorial Church, Dean Sperry, was famous fifty years ago for taking a mildly cynical view of what Americans like to call their "textual preaching," and he coined this aphorism which I have used in many ways differently from what he intended. It does, however, describe something of the kinds of preaching of which I'm speaking. His formula went like thins: "Take your text; depart from your text; never return to your text." You may not do this, but doubtless you are sitting next to somebody who does. Therefore, this is a kind of veiled warning against that particular way of doing things.
This is all in the context of our continued affirmation of the power of the word, and of the value of words to deal with the power of the word. The notion that words move people and make a difference is often denigrated in our image-minded culture. We have been told that action and image is the way of communication, and that words are sort of artifacts on their way out. I ask you if that is really true. Ronald Reagan was called the "great communicator." This is not because he was a great actor, for he was a terrible actor, a mediocre actor, a B-level actor, as were all of his films: not one good film did Ronald Reagan appear in. What made Reagan work, whether or not you liked him, was the illusion of his capacity to use words to move people, and that was what communication was seen to be in political life. It is the reason, one of many, that Michael Dukakis, who ran against Reagan, was not president of the United States--not because he looked silly riding around in a tank with Mickey Mouse ears but because his words were not effective in persuading people. One of the reasons that Bill Clinton, wherever you stand in the syllabus of Clinton virtue or Clinton vice, so charmed his friends and bedeviled his enemies was that, as a southern Baptist, he understood the power of words and language and was far more exciting and interesting and compelling with his words than, shall we say, to take a name out of the air, Bob Dole. If you had to be locked in a room to listen endlessly to one or other of those two, which room would you go to? Of course you would go to the place where the words, the language--and it didn't matter if you believed them or not, that is something else entirely--affected you; and that describes our present dilemma in the last election.
Neither of the most recent candidates was compelling because of his words--neither Al Gore, a good Harvard man with great ideas but not the most persuasive of communicators, nor our present president. There are two things wrong, I think, that most of us think of this president, that have nothing to do with his policies (about which another lecture could be given without drawing breath). One is that poor George's eyes are too close together; they are not trustworthy eyes. George is always blinking, have you noticed that? There is always something very squinty about President Bush, unlike his father, which is disconcerting to some. Second, no matter how well or badly articulated his polities might be, his syntax is downright annoying. He cannot construct a simple English sentence, and either it is an artful dumbing-down in order to undermine his elite eastern credentials and make him sound like an inarticulate Texan, or he really is that way, which is even worse from the point of view of the rest of us. Now, I say this as he too is a Harvard graduate, although of the Business School, where articulation in speech is not necessarily the highest virtue celebrated, but even by that rather low standard he does not cut much of a figure.
Language is a powerful thing, and we admire it in others even though with that language they may do bad things, and we deplore it in those who, even though they do good things, are not able to communicate them. In World War II we had before us three people who were masters of language who turned the world upside down, for better or worse.
There was Adolf Hitler, admittedly one of the most powerful rhetoricians the world has ever seen, so powerful that his words alone ignited a terrible fire which nearly consumed the world. It was his words articulating his ideas that did that. If you watch his speeches, even though you don't understand a word of German--of course I'm in the wrong place for not being able to understand a word of German, because you all dream in German here, I'm sure, and therefore can understand every syllable that Hitler uttered--you are nevertheless terrified by what you hear, because you sort of understand it even though it's in a foreign language, because he was a great communicator.
Thank God he wasn't the only communicator to illustrate the power of words, because we had two others. We had Mr. Roosevelt, who was blessed not with a great intelligence but with a powerful arsenal of language which moved our country into the fight position; and we had the greatest communicator of the twentieth century, I want to argue, and that is Sir Winston Churchill. All three of them had words as their nuclear weapons, so don't buy into the notion that words no longer work, that people are incapable of understanding words strung together in sentences, that they are content to have as the archetypes of communication and languages the talk-show hosts and television mimics, and that we all now have been reduced to the third-grade level of two-minute attention spans. That is a conceit that has been sold to us as a bill of goods, and we should not buy it; and the last people who should buy into that are the ministers of Word and Sacrament.
You have sold out if you have bought the notion that this is the wave of the future, that this is the way of discourse; and when your people sit in your pews, no matter what they say or what you think they say, they will hear anything that you are capable of communicating. If they cannot hear the sermon it's not their fault, it's your fault. They will listen for 50 minutes if you have something to say for 50 minutes and say it well for 50 minutes. You have to reclaim the initiative of the word and take some responsibility for shaping the context in which the word is heard. If you do not, you have nobody to blame but yourselves. You can't blame TV, you can't blame radio, you can't blame the secular culture, you can't blame politics; you have to blame--if blame is the word at all--yourselves. My contention is that people will hear anything that we are capable of communicating--anything.
Now, if we have in our care and custody the Word of Life, of course people are going to want to hear it, and it is our responsibility to figure out the most effective way for us to communicate that Word of Life. Instead of thinking of the sermon as a problem that has to be solved every Sunday, you must think of it as an opportunity that has to be grasped every Sunday. Instead of thinking of the sermon as an unfortunate interlude in the face of a seamless liturgy, you must understand that the sermon is the essential ingredient of the liturgy. It cannot be an add-on or a drop-off; it has to be essentially a sacramental ingredient, the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. That is what the Prayer Book defines as a sacrament, and the sermon is no less a sacrament than that.
For those of you who have been brought up in what we might call the diminished climate of expectations of the sermon, you have a responsibility to overcome that climate and turn it around. It is never too late. Your best years are ahead of you; and is it not reassuring for you, as it ought to be for your people, that your best sermons are ahead of you? Is not that good news, that every week you have a chance to experience that, to witness to that, to celebrate that? I am hoping that you will claim that opportunity as your own.
How does one do it? That is my point this morning. There are two elements that must be engaged in order to achieve this great promise of the sermon as a new and enlivening form of discourse, and these two qualities I fear are in short supply among us these days. The first is a matter of trust, and the second is a matter of imagination. Within that framework of trust and imagination, I assume you have all done what you have to do with the ancient languages. Now, whether or not the ancient languages are good, I really don't know; there is a certain number of hurdles through which our seminaries put our people, but at a simple level, asking the indulgence of the professors of Old Testament and Hebrew Bible and of New Testament and Greek, I ask, in a sort of cynical observation, whether this is like three years of high school French. I say, "Thank God people smarter than I am have already translated this, because if it depended upon my seminary Greek or my seminary Hebrew, I suspect that few would be saved and many more, including myself, would be lost." I know that it gives employment to very smart people to teach these languages, and I'm not going to diss them, because you will ask me questions later on and expose my ignorance. It may be very good for a lot of people, but I really do wonder if it does any good other than, I hope, to give the facility to use a good concordance, a good lexicon, and some fundamentally useful word studies.
Kittel is a lot smarter than you are, however, and if you know where you can put your hand on Kittel and the whole host of Germans who indulge themselves in linguistic studies--you do not have to be a fireman to smash the glass and pull the alarm--that may very well be a useful device to you. I don't want to knock that, but I do want you to think about where the priorities are placed. Many a good preacher has been ruined from trying to be a good linguist, and unless we start where your ancestors started, early enough that these languages become a part of us, and I mean in the first grade, then I wonder what use they are. I am in favor of introducing classics and foreign languages when we introduce English to students, in the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth grades, so that by the time they reach high school they can think in those languages. By the time you are 21, and you are taking up the classical languages for the first time, by and large, unless you are a hidden genius, it is too late to be of any use. Those of you who are in second and third careers and are coming from the fruit of one labor and trying to start another--I don't want to say it's a waste of time, but I do think that, given the short time the Lord has given you in the second career, you might put your time to somewhat better use. I don't want to get into that, however, as that is curricular reform, and we all know that that is a bog into which one shouldn't step.
Having said that, the issue, it seems to me, is a matter of trust and imagination. How do we get into that? In the matter of imagination, at least initially, I will refer to a secular colleague of mine, Samuel Beer, who has just turned 90 this fall and is well retired from his eminence as Eaton Professor of the Science of Government at Harvard, a professorship that he honored for something like 45 years. He was one of the great giants at Harvard and in the intellectual world. He was honored at a gathering of his colleagues in Cambridge on his 90th birthday in November, and he gave a wonderfully rambling disposition on his intellectual pilgrimage and how he got from where he was to where he is. As a sort of summary of it all, and having lived in the golden age and dealt with some of the high points of twentieth-century political science, he said, essentially, "Ultimately I think that I have learned more from metaphor than I have from analysis." Now, this is a master in the field of analysis, and in a sense he was offering a secular social scientist's affirmation.
The point I've tried to make in other settings is that for clergy and for the people of God, we are saved by our metaphors and not by our metaphysics. We are saved by the pictures we draw, the images we create, the symbols that have been offered to us and that we offer to others. We are saved by our metaphors and not by our metaphysics, which means that we offer salvation not through our explanations but through the invitation to an experience. How many of you have sat through sermons that try to explain something? Christmas Eve? Oh, what painful years I have spent listening to others preach, explaining the great mystery of the Incarnation: "This is the way it works, this happens, that happens ..." and nobody is fed at the manger on that stuff. If Christmas Eve is bad, Easter is even worse. Every sophomoric argument in which we have ever been engaged comes out to try us on Easter morning. How did the tomb get empty? Who rolled the stone away? What did the women see or not see? What did they say or not say? Was it a real angel, or were they just hallucinating because they hadn't had any breakfast and had been up all night?
Over and over and over again we trot out these tawdry little explanations and think that that is the good news, until quickly we say, "Let us pray," when in fact people hunger and thirst for an experience. "Listen, brother; listen, sister, is there something that has saved you that might save me? Is there something you have that you can give to me? Is there something I need that you have?" Those are the kinds of questions that can be answered only by the imagination, in a sort of license to think and respond freely rather than simply in the land of pseudoscientific fact. You and I have been brought up in such a culture, where we have had to defend the Christian faith against the host of rational opposition, and we're defeated before we start because we have accepted its terms for the debate. We have accepted the notion that we must make our faith credible, reasonable, acceptable, and understandable, so that the grossest heathen might make sense of it and then reject it. That is not a level playing field, and it is certainly not a field on which we can play with any degree of confidence. It is the irrationality, the unacceptability, the incredibility of our faith that is its chief attraction and our chief asset, and to embrace that is to turn our critics on their heads, because they cannot accept those terms. That is why they are on the outside and we are on the inside, and we should accept that.
Have you ever tried to have an argument with a Buddhist? Have you ever tried to have a debate with a Hindu? It doesn't work, because in their sweet inscrutability they simply do not admit to the terms in which we seemingly are obliged to debate. We want explanations, they offer sweet experience, and we will always lose that debate. The liberating notion, however, is that it was never our debate in the first place. You think of the Bible, and those teaching moments of Jesus, the great teacher--Jesus is the master of using words with which to teach--and when Jesus teaches miracles, those miracles are framed in language, in words; and is it not generally the case that we find most of Jesus' explanations of his miracles and healing works unacceptable? They really don't make much sense at all, and they didn't make any sense to the apostles, who were there on site and had some knowledge! Why then should they make any more sense to us? We are not any smarter than the apostles and we're further removed from the moment of encounter, so why should we understand more than they the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, for instance? What makes us think that we have finally understood what those poor bewildered companions of Jesus did not understand?
Here is a perfect illustration of this. How many of you have scratched your head into baldness trying to come up with something new and interesting to say on the Feast of the Transfiguration? I just ask you about that, and we have two Sundays now on which to do it: the Sunday before Lent begins--a mistake, I will add, of our liturgical Mafia, which runs how we are to read Scripture, and this is a big mistake to do that on the Sunday before Lent--and then we have it where it used to fall, on the calendar in the middle of the summer. I have never heard, nor have I ever given, a convincing sermon on the Feast of the Transfiguration. "It is good, Lord, for us to be here," is about as close as we can get, but what about these booths, and where does Elijah fit into all of this, and how is it that even Jesus himself did not give a satisfactory explanation to those who were there? That's just a small illustration, and I have consulted the commentaries hither and yon, and even the commentaries of Dr. Luther himself, and am persuaded that we will all have to wait until we get to heaven to find out--where no explanation, of course, is necessary, because we will have had the experience.
So, my suggestion is that the ticket into the imagination, which frees us from bondage to the tyranny of explanation, is the notion of experience, which we try to communicate, to celebrate, and to share, and words are the means to that end. If you lack experience, and if you lack the ability to communicate with imagination, everything else you do, in my view, is vain and foolish. If you're going to have a sermon at all, it must be a sermon that invites people into an experience, a relationship, and not simply into an exposition or an explanation. I sometimes feel that my colleagues in New Testament have done more harm than good, because in their heroic and altogether sincere efforts to teach us how to treat the texts through our exegesis, the dangers of eisegesis, our reading of the texts, our cultivation of languages, and our sense of a historical use of the texts, we have persuaded them that having done that, they have done all they need to do in order to teach someone to preach; and to those of us who teach preaching, oh, how we have suffered through people reading their exegesis, thinking they are preaching the Word of God. Oh, what a crime! Oh, what a sin! Hell will be listening to exegeses read aloud by bad exegetes, and at least a quarter of Hell will be filled with professors of New Testament.
Why is this a problem? I'm sure this is not true in Lutheran seminaries, but it is true for most seminaries that professors of New Testament have drawn the line, and say that their job is simply to explicate the text and not to invite anybody into the experience toward which the text points. This is not to say that they are not devout and faithful believers, but it is to say that they have a very narrow view of their function, and that that view is contagious, alas, and part of it has to do with what I think is the rather shortsighted vision of many people who are devoted to the explication of the text but not to the experience of the text. The way to grasp that experience of the text is through the imagination, of seeing things that aren't there. In a sense, I take Dean Sperry's aphorism that I gave you at the beginning of this talk as very wise, for truly we are meant to depart from our text--it is a launching pad--and at some risk I will say that it is also our ultimate purpose to never return to our text. That is to say, the text is meant to send us somewhere else and not back to itself.
My next piece of work, the next book in which I hope to invest my life's blood, is a book whose title I hope will illustrate what I've just said. Its title is The Good News: From Scripture to Gospel. How do we get from the text, which is a mere artifact, to the good news to which the text invariably points and from which the text has come? There is this thing called "gospel" out there which gets manifested in this thing called "text" right here, and reading that text properly and with imagination takes us away from it and to gospel, good news. How does that work?
One of the problems has been that those of us who are people of The Book are stuck in these 66 books, and we think that's it; we don't spend a great deal of time wondering where it comes from out there, and even less time on where it goes. My ambition is to try to suggest how one does that for preachers, because it will not be seminary professors who will accomplish that task; it is up to us as preachers to make that transaction. The seminary professors give us the tools to work with what we have, what's here, and the more inspired of them have some relationship to where it comes from, and the most inspired of them tell us where to go, but most of them give us simply the tools with which to deal with what's here. It's up to us preachers, ministers, stewards of the mysteries of Christ, to make that transaction. So, that's another way of taking that aphorism and using our imagination to lead us into the realm of experience.
The imagination is both the means and the destination, but that is not the chief problem that affects us in this activity of ours. It is true that imagination is in short supply among preachers; our language and diction are impoverished by our lack of imagination. My solution to the imagination of the preacher is reading--and not reading just theology, because those who write theology also seemingly lack imagination, at least in their diction and language. Most books of serious theology that we are obliged to write and read, alas, do not have wings. They don't float, they trudge along. I think most theologians--and I've said this to my own faculty, so I don't mind saying it to you--can be represented by the walk to Emmaus. Here they are, licking yesterday's wounds; a stranger comes among them, and they say, "Don't you know what happened?" and they try to explain from their point of view. It's an interesting discourse, but they certainly don't persuade the stranger, try as they may as they fiercely walk toward Emmaus, on their way to tenure. Only when the stranger begins to talk to them do their hearts burn within them as he opens the Scripture to them along the way and ultimately manifests himself in the breaking of the bread, in an act of imagination. Emmaus is the perfect paradigm of the triumph of experience over explanation, but too often it is the road to Emmaus rather than the dinner in the upper room that consumes us. I want to suggest that imagination is the way that liberates us from the tyranny of that journey, which is essentially a retrospective: looking at what happened, how sad it is, and how woebegone we are. It is the meal that breaks the power of that paradigm.
That is not the chief problem, however, of preaching as we face it today. I think the chief problem is also not a matter of authority, though I often hear that as an explanation. The so-called problem of authority was introduced into our seminaries and our preaching more explicitly, over the last quarter of a century, with the rise of the enrollment of women in the seminaries. I say this quite candidly out of my own experience, because one of the problems I can remember when women started appearing in our preaching classes was the problem of authority. Women in some sense ceded early on the notion that authority belonged to the men, whom they had heard all of their lives, whether legitimately or not, and they were determined not to sound like men and therefore were determined not to assume the kind of cultural authority that they associated with men; and so the issue of authority became increasingly an issue with which we had to deal in preaching. It wasn't so much the authority of the word, which we by and large accepted; it was the authority of the proclaimer of the word.
So, a number of problems were introduced, and I was a slow learner; it took me a long time to grasp this issue of authority. I remember I used to say to my women students, "You must speak up! We're not going to have this whispering, this subtle posing. I will not have Barbara Brown Taylor in my class: you will speak up!" There was a great deal of controversy about that, I must say, but I've lived to tell the tale. Whispering is not the most advantageous way of communication; you think you're seducing people to listen, but they're going to go to sleep because they can't hear you, so speak up!
Needless to say, the word got out, and many fewer women enrolled in my classes, and I had to think of another way of doing it. It was a question, however, of how authority is communicated, how authority is claimed, how authority is expressed, and there is no one way, I have learned, to do that.
Authority, however, is not the real issue. The real issue is trust. Have we anything to say that is trustworthy, and is there any reason that people should trust us to say it? That is the problem, and it is not just a female problem but a problem of men and women trained to be preachers in an age where not only the form of discourse, the word, is under suspicion, but the content. This question of trust was dealt with in a variety of ways, and there was a time when the preacher said, "Look, I want to be treated as an equal; I don't want to stand up there and wear funny clothes, I just want to be down here with my people on the same level; and why do we have to wear these vestments?" and so on. "I just want to struggle with this thing along with everybody else, I do not want to stand ten feet above contradiction, I don't want to do that anymore." This was challenging old Pastor Lundquist, with his collar and his bands and his black robes, and his thundering "Thus saith the Lord."
The other side of that is, "Well, if you're just like me, and we're standing in the same place and you're just stumbling through this along with me, why should I bother to listen to you do the same thing? Maybe the thing isn't worth doing at all. Just let's sit around as we do, in what is called--in a misnomer, I think--'Bible study' in most of our churches, and say, 'What do you think about this?'" Someone will say, "Well, I like this text, it reminds me of my mother, when she was sick, she ..." and off we go into tangent land, from which we never return. You give your deeply moving response to that, then we go on to somebody else, who says, "Yes, I like this text, it reminds me of when I was in college ..." and then there's another one, and we do this for forty minutes. It's called the "African Bible Study method," and I think that's a calumny against both Africans and the Bible; I think much of it's a lot of hooey and nonsense. There is something in the texts, we have to find out what it is, and in some places we have to go beyond it; it's not just a Rorschach test about the text, which is why so much of what passes for Bible study these days is a waste of time. It's therapy, but it's not study, and it therefore doesn't go anywhere. We just heap this stuff up in the middle of the room and leave it there, and we come back and add another heap the next week and another the next week, until you have fifty-two heaps of stuff and still you've gone nowhere. You have to rethink what you're going to do with this thing called Bible study. It is a question of authority, and so it also leads to the question of trust.
It is the question of trust that I have taken up more consistently than anything else in my teaching, and I try to address how we proceed. People ask me, "Can you make a great preacher?" As Professor Harms will doubtless say, and others have said, "No, nobody can make a great preacher; I can make a bad preacher a better preacher, that's all I can do. If you do as I say, and maybe even as I do, I can take you from point A maybe to point B ..." and that's not a bad thing to do.
Your congregation on Sunday in some sense deserves a medal--not for simply having to listen to you, but for the fact that they come out for no particular social reward. Not everybody does it any more; many watch the Sunday morning talk shows, tend their gardens, maintain their families, sleep in, or engage in any other set of attractive alternatives, so those who bother to come to church week after week deserve something. The reason they're there is not necessarily because of your preaching; they are there and they endure your preaching, they even come to expect something of your preaching, and they come to wish you well. They come to wish you well! In the Black church we know this, because they come and they say, right out loud, during the sermon, "Preach it, brother!" Go!" "Amen!" " Hallelujah!" "Yes, you're right!" "Be careful ... don't go there!" "Yes, good!" You get a lot of encouragement as you make your way in the Black church, but Lord help you Lutherans, because your people sit on their hands. They see you coming to this terrible homiletical cliff off of which you are about to drop, and they sit there and watch you go over, and that's the end of that. Nobody warns you, "Danger ahead!" " Be careful!" Then they come back to see if you'll jump off that cliff again.
This is a bit like the Flying Wallendas. Remember the Flying Wallendas, that famous European family of acrobats who flew through the air with the greatest of ease, without a net? That's why we went to see the Flying Wallendas. Nobody who went to see the. Flying Wallendas ever wished them ill, no one wanted to see anything awful happen, but had you the opportunity to be there when one of them missed the connection and crashed and burned, while you wouldn't rejoice, it would be an experience that you would remember and perhaps tell other people about.
Let me say that your people do not come to watch you crash and burn; they come in the hope that even in hope triumphing over experience, something good might happen here, and they want to be a part of it. You should trust them, because, strangely enough, they trust you. So, not only trust the text, but trust the people; they are built to receive what you have to offer, and they can receive anything you are capable of offering.
The third thing is to trust the Spirit. We actually do believe that the Spirit inhabits the text and the word, and that the Spirit is what gives us utterance: we believe that, yet we really are not altogether sure we believe that. I, however, have the experience of it and I know all of you have, too. All of you preachers know that when you are preaching there is a strange creature, I call it the Jiminy Cricket of homiletics, who sits on your right shoulder--you all know this--and this creature utters a running commentary as you're preaching. It'll say, "That's pretty good, bet you didn't know where that came from ... uh-oh, watch out for this one, it's not going to go where you think it'll go, do that; or it will say, "Time's running out;" or "Skip to the third verse;" or "This is pretty good, you're much better than you think you are." You hear all of this, and at the end you say to yourself, "You can still fool some of the people some of the time."
That Spirit, no matter how annoying, is there, and our job is to listen to it with one ear as with the other ear we listen to the people. I say "listen to the people" through the Spirit, because I have a theory of how listening works--and I'll be interested if the professors of homiletics here agree with me. I argue that you never have your congregation with you all the time, in fact I argue that inevitably every congregation is divided up into three sections. There is the group that is with you at the very moment that you're speaking, there's the group that has just left you, they've gone off to wool-gather, to think about it, to prepare themselves for the next moment when they're with you, and then there's the group just ready to come in. You're the conductor of an orchestra, with these various groups. They are not all with you at the same time, you bid farewell to this one, you embrace this one, you beckon this one to come in. Haven't you ever realized that that's why we have three-point sermons? There are never three points, it's one point expressed in three different ways, because we have three different congregations all at the same time, as I have right now. There's a group of you with me right at this moment, hanging on my every word, while another group of you is thinking, "This is interesting, I wonder how it works in my life," and another group of you is just ready to come in. What are they listening to? An effective preacher recognizes that he has these three groups all sitting in the same place at the same time but not doing the same thing. Therefore you have three different sets of illustrations, you have three different jokes, you have three different stories, three different expositional lines; and your hope is that somewhere along the way each of your three listening congregations has heard what it is you have to say, and that they're with you as you begin: "I take as my text ..." and when you end: "Let us pray.... "Between "I take as my text" and "Let us pray" there is a symphony going on; and if you're a bad conductor you're in deep trouble. Trust the Spirit, for the Spirit will enable you to do this.
Finally, the hardest element of trust, I think, is to trust yourself. Trust the fact that you have been called, summoned, invited, provoked into this great calling where words, language, Spirit, and imagination take their part; that God, for reasons that you cannot explain, has seen in you something of value in this process. Therefore, ultimately, trust God, who has trusted you. It is that element of trust that most concerns me, because so many ministers of Word and Sacrament don't trust themselves. They feel, "Woe is me, I am inadequate, I am a man or woman of unclean lips"--quoting from Isaiah 6--"How can I manage among so great a people?" The power of Isaiah, after the sixth chapter, is that inadequate as poor old Isaiah is, God somehow has some use for him and puts that use to good and visible purpose. God has such a use for us. He has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light, and if God can trust us, then it's not simply a matter of our trusting God but of our trusting ourselves, whom God has entrusted with the ministry of Word and Sacrament, the mysteries of Christ, and the ministry of reconciliation. So, if God can trust us, we must trust ourselves.
That is not a matter of arrogance, or of self-aggrandizement, but of affirmation and appropriate confidence, and it allows us to take as our own those words of the apostle who says, "Greater works shall ye do. To whom will be shown a more excellent way. To whom has been given the custody of the true and lively word." To nobody else is this given: not to lawyers, not to doctors, not to pundits, politicians, or pollsters, but to us. The most unworthy, we have been given the greatest thing possible and the only thing that will save our people. If we are aware that that is what we have--"power unto salvation"--it will open the door by our imagination through to the experience of the living God; and that is what our people still instinctively believe they have a right to expect from us. It is a sin of the first order to disappoint that expectation.
My old friend and colleague, Gardner Taylor, the great dean of Black preachers--the great dean of preachers, I will argue--in Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn, New York, once was asked in a homiletics course, "Dr. Taylor, how many points should a good sermon have?" He replied, "At least one."
So, my one point today is that we should have the confidence and boldness of Christ in our unique proclamation. We should let our imaginations loose, which will open up both ourselves and our people to the experience of the living Word and the living Christ. We should open not only our minds but our hearts to this process, and we can do so by the wonderful grace that God gives us. You Lutherans now share in the rich Anglican tradition, and they share in the rich Lutheran tradition, although it is not altogether clear to me how you cohabit; but you have a lifetime to sort that out, and the rest of us can watch and wish you well. You now share in the great inheritance of the Book of Common Prayer; and my favorite collect, which occurs on one of the many Sundays after Trinity and which you have incorporated into your own book of worship, is a collect that somehow sums up my one point in these two talks. It may be familiar to you, and it goes like this: "O God, who has prepared for them that love Thee such good things as pass our understanding: pour into our hearts such love for Thee that we, loving Thee, may obtain Thy promises, which exceed all that we can imagine or desire."
It's an incredibly comprehensive text that we owe to Archbishop Cranmer. There are many things that Archbishop Cranmer didn't do or get quite right, but the writing of collects was one of the ways the Spirit worked through him, and that one, which says that God has given us through our understanding and our reception of his word more things that we can imagine or desire, opens up the whole panoply of expectation through our faithful attention to the word that God has given us to say.
My hope is that in that one point all of these points are summarized and brought together, and that taken as a whole they may do something that may enable you to be better preachers of the Bible in Babel. If I have contributed in any way to that, I feel I will have justified, at least from my point of view, the four experiences in these Lutheran seminaries under the auspices of the Hein Fry Lectures.
I was told yesterday that one of your Lutheran Web sites, in commenting upon the appointment of Professor Lundblad and me to this lectureship, said that Drs. Hein and Fry would be turning in their graves that we would bear their names. I don't know why they would be annoyed with Barbara Lundblad, she's one of you, yet I can probably expect that they would be concerned that an open, practicing, and affirming Baptist, as I am, might give them a little pause; but I hope that when we all meet--and I hope that we all meet in the same place--they will have heard these lectures, and in the midst of their churning and their turning, might find something of the word of God that has crept into these words of mine. So may it be.
(1) Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith (HarperCollins, 1994), and Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally (HarperSanFrancisco 2001).
Peter J. Gomes
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals
and Pusey Minister in The Memorial Church
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|Author:||Gomes, Peter J.|
|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2003|
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