Today's worship service began with the congregation singing an enjoyable gospel-folk version of "Wade in the Water" led by the Fleshpots of Egypt. Then we sat through a rather mundane David Lose sermon from which the main takeaway was the rule that if you are a straight white man, probably don't preach a text about a woman that a black African woman who is a marvel of a preacher already preached on this week. Plus, I couldn't tell who the sermon was for. It sounded like something anyone might preach on a routine Sunday; it said nothing that every preacher in the room didn't already know and hadn't probably already said themselves from a pulpit. Not the caliber of sermon one expects at this festival and a serious disappointment from someone many of us trust and use as a resource for our preaching.
But, then, came Barbara Brown Taylor to lecture on ways she has changed her mind about preaching over her career. She announced that this was her final appearance at the Festival, so there was a bittersweet element to being there for this recap of a distinguished career.
With her eloquence and grace she talked about how she generally makes only one point anymore, has begun to use fewer personal stories, quotes less often, and uses fewer theological words (despite having written a marvelous book defending them in the 1990's).
In her sermons she now "lavishes all my attention on the one true thing I want people to take away."
She has learned "the virtues of a failed sermon," including that a failed sermon "gives me the chance to measure my own defenses."
She has concluded that the preaching task is primarily about "continuing to show up." Then she added, "It's how we learn what faith, hope, and love look like in the flesh."
This capped a week in which I believe the primary theme was the role of the pastor. Often the role of the pastor in the Age of Trump. But more broadly exactly what our purpose and call are, what tasks we are to be about.
This morning I began reading Wendell Berry's What Are People For? one of his classics that I have, surprisingly, never read. In his discussion of the writer Edward Abbey I found a helpful description of the preacher in the Age of Trump:
He sees the gravity, the great danger, of the predicament we are now in, he tells it unswervingly, and he defends unflinchingly the heritage and the qualities that may preserve us.
May we be up to the task to which the Holy Spirit has called us.
I marvel at the preaching of Grace Imathiu. She weaves a message that moves fluidly from humour to profundity to critique to inspiration. Today she was wearing a tall golden crown of a hat. She joked that they keep inviting her because she has the best clothes.
No, because her preaching is a marvel.
This year’s sermon was an exploration of the story of the Samaritan woman at the well from her perspective and was full of insight. I did not come away with as many quotes and illustrations as I did last year, but I will remember this one.
“Of course Black Lives Matter, but are we that behind, seriously, that we have to say it? We should be saying Trans Lives Matter, but we are stuck on something more basic.”
Luke Powery lectured on “Preaching on the Spiritual Borders.” The spirituals teach us four notes to sound. First, they sound the note of the reality of human suffering. He declared that we must “remember a deadly, bloody, tear-filled past.” And this—“The blood of the martyrs fertilizes the soil of our preaching.”
Second, they sound the note of a theology of divine suffering. He said, “Death keeps Christianity real.”
Third, they sound the note of an ecology of community. “The spirituals are an exorcism of spiritual narcissism.”
Fourth, they sound the note of the viability of singing as a homiletical strategy. “When life is hard and tough, there is always a song.” “You can’t sing and not change your condition.” “The spirituals are a sign of the slave’s refusal to be stopped.”
The afternoon wrapped up with David Lose’s lecture on how to preach in an age of alternative facts. He admitted he did not yet know. He gave an earnest attempt to grapple with the problem, but I found his lecture quite disappointing. He needs to have listened to Amy Butler, Alyce McKenzie, Brian McLaren, and Will Willimon. They all had good approaches to the problem.
Near the end he acknowledged that he was worried that his approach might simply be cowardice.
Will Willimon has clearly reached the point in life at which he doesn’t give a damn. Though I’ve heard him a handful of times before, this time he pulled no punches and cut to the quick.
For instance, he said that sometime in the middle of his career it became fashionable to view pastoral care as the primary aspect of ministry, to let it trump preaching. He said, “If you like holding hands, go into nursing. We are called to be preachers. To tell the truth.”
His lecture was on using preaching to combat racism. He said, “One of God’s weapons for defeating the color line is preaching.”
“If our congregations are nervous about this kind of talk, then they’ve just got to get over it.”
He shared how recently someone came up after he preached and said that he shouldn’t have dealt with some issue in his preaching. Willimon said to the person, “I guess Jesus did make a mistake in calling you to be a disciple, then. I thought maybe you were better than you are.” Damn. I can’t wait to be in my seventies if that’s the sort of thing you get to say to congregants.
“The point of the sermon is to increase stress.” He said he recently went to church and the call to worship was about how people are anxious and are coming to worship to find comfort, centering, and balance. He said he looked around and it was mostly white people who didn’t look anxious at all.
“I’m worried how white supremacism sneaks into our stuff.” “It’s time to talk about our social mores as an offense against God.” “I can’t think of a greater enemy than white people.”
But he believes in grace and that God can save even us biased and racist white people. “That we can be changed is a Christian gift.”
Culture and the Death of God by Terry Eagleton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Based on a Christian Century review that ended with this description--"This is articulate, winsome, and dashing Christian apologetics dressed up as the history of ideas. It’s a sumptuous feast."--I ordered this book last year.
In an enjoyable survey of Western thought since the Enlightenment and its efforts and failures to find a replacement for God, Eagleton narrates how we have arrived at our current moment of a meaningless postmodernism and violent fundamentalism. He does so with intelligence and wit. Reading while flying the other day, I kept giggling at the humourous lines, such as "The first sentence of Fichte's Science of Knowledge declares that the book is not intended for the general public, a warning that the briefest glance at its pages renders instantly superfluous."
Along the way he makes key points such as this in a critique of Matthew Arnold and Emile Durkheim, “The idea of religion as a source of social cohesion receives scant support from the Christian Gospel. By and large, the teaching of Jesus is presented by that document as disruptive rather than conciliatory. . . . Jesus proclaims that he has come to pitch society into turmoil.”
Much like my own thought, and those Don Wester who influenced me, he reads Nietzsche in a way that opens up the possibility for a truly revolutionary Christianity rather than the socially and politically accommodating kind that has traditionally existed, even if this is not at all what Nietzsche had in mind. Basically, it’s a good thing that God is dead—at least the God Nietzsche proclaimed as dead.
For much of the book I was unsure where he was heading, and enjoyed the turn near the end.
But I throughout I thought the book lacking, though finishing I now realize that the missing elements may have been intentional. There is no discussion of key figures who represent an alternative to the main narrative of the book, folks such as Peirce, James, and Whitehead. In other words, those figures who have most influenced my own thought.
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During an interlude of morning worship the organist played Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." Brian McLaren was the preacher and lecturer discussing what people hate about organized religion. It isn't that they want sloppier religion, its that religion is often organized toward the wrong goals. It should be organized toward justice and the love of God and working in cooperation with people of goodwill from all faiths and cultures.
McLaren began by confirming that preaching is becoming more challenging, but the larger social factors making it so, are not our fault. He had a litany, which included the powerful, "It is not your fault that American religion has always had a racist subtext."
He warned us, "The time is way too dangerous to waste a sermon."
He declared "If you are signing the songs of empire, you are on the wrong side." We should be singing about our racial problems, about our responsibilities to the environment. Also praise songs, because "all legitimate praise songs are also protest songs."
If you need permission to be a preacher organizing the church for justice, know that "you were given permission at your baptism."
My favourite practical word he gave, an idea I may work on for next year, is that all churches should organize peace marches on Palm Sunday, which would be a more authentic way of living into the story of Jesus.
In the afternoon Otis Moss III said that if you are doing your job as a preacher, then people will leave the church. That's simply part of the pain of preaching. His lecture was entitled "When the Empire Strikes Back."
The preacher should help people to shift their prism and see things from different perspectives. We may not be able to change everything, but we can at least plant the seeds that may work out in a later generation.
On a practical level he said, "You are creating a sonic mural every time you preach."
After lunch I chose to visit the Alamo for the first time in more than twenty years. I sat in garden on a bench in front of a fountain in the cool shade cast by the spreading branches of the live oaks.
“To be a pastor these days is to navigate a treacherous terrain—you should be scared.” Thus Amy Butler, pastor of New York’s Riverside Church, warned us.
She told the story of how after Charleston that the Department of Homeland Security identified Riverside as a potential target and that they implemented a series of security measures there that are still in place.
Her lecture was about how we have to be addressing the many issues and events in the news. “If you aren’t talking about politics in the pulpit you have failed,” she said.
Part of her admonition was about process. You cannot use as an excuse that an event transpired at the last moment or after your sermon was written or planned. Your job is to craft a sermon on the broad themes of God’s message so that if something transpires at the last moment you can still connect it to your theme.
Here were her four reasons why you have to preach connected with current events:
- We preachers are theologians. We must think very hard about what theological constructs we are promoting with everything we say and do.
- People bring the weight of the world with them.
- It’s our job to help people turn a theological lens on their world.
- We are called to this.
Today’s lecture was my first time to hear Amy Butler in person, and she lived up to my expectations. She was very impressive.
Her parting line was a clarion call—“We cannot miss this moment.”
This line from Anthony Bailey’s sermon spoke to me, “tempt the world in the ways of God.”
During the morning break I was chatting with my festival friend Ken (we met last year and argued over the TPP) who was asking about the impact of the election on my congregation and me, since we live in Nebraska. As we talked he shared one of his revelations of this moment—that the empire has been exposed as having no clothes. He has told his congregation that they were not as outraged when Obama bombed children, that what they are reacting to now is the boorish way in which Trump operates. But Trump has exposed the evils of the empire through his boorishness and that just maybe this is a moment in which our people will finally take notice of the evils of the empire and react.
I had not heard this analysis before and will add it to my grasp of our current moment.
Sewing fig leaves is absurdly comic, Anna Carter Florence told us. She once brought needles, thread, and fig leaves to class so her students could participate in the text of Genesis 3. What they learned after an hour of trying is that you really can’t sew fig leaves into loincloths. They wilt, for one thing.
“The Bible is a collection of scripts that God has given us to rehearse.” So, she said literally enacting the story teaches you the point of the story, in the case of Genesis 3 that human attempts to cover up our nakedness are futile.
You have insights like this if you “enter scripture verbs first,” as she was teaching us this morning.
Far too often, Bible study gets stuck in the nouns and trying to explain alien things like cubits, shekels, Nephilim, etc. to a 21st century audience. Instead, connect to the verbs, which have largely remained the same in our daily lives. “The point of incarnation is that God came to share our verbs.”
At morning worship Nadia Bolz-Weber preached an Ash Wednesday sermon about giving our full heart to God. She emphasized that “it is hard to have a human heart.”
The first lecture of the day, by Alyce McKenzie, was entitled “Preaching the Good News in an Era of Fake News.” Though presidential lying is not new, the current climate is teaching us “the irrelevance of politics,” a claim I found surprising and refreshing.
So, what a preaching? McKenzie claimed that “the dust cloud of fake news is enhancing the desire for good news from the pulpit.” She views the current crisis as an opportunity for the church.
The bulk of her lecture was contrasting fake news with biblical wisdom. The purposes of the latter are character formation, fool managements, and shalom enhancement. We giggled at the middle one.
There are a variety of fools, the three most troublesome are the gullible, the know-it-all, and the dangerous.
You don’t become a fool overnight, there are steps to character deformation:
- The isolated foolish act
- Folly becomes a sport
- Beyond correction
- Collapse and rage
In contrast is character formation which follows these steps:
- Humility resulting from the fear of the Lord
- Compassion for others
- Impulse control
- Courage to speak up
The four qualities of a wise person are:
- An awestruck attitude
- A listening heart
- A cool spirit
- And a subversive voice
We lunched in a downtown park with food trucks and live music. Eating my sandwich, I realized that in the middle of the park stood a monument to the Confederate dead. Jeez. Sewing fig leaves indeed.
Walter Brueggemann opened the festival by preaching on the story of the shibboleth from the Book of Judges. When the liturgist read the text and said, "The Word of the Lord," this room of 1,800 preachers laughed.
Brueggemann said it is an absurd story but went on to talk about the foolishness of the cross that is wiser than all our masteries.
He spoke of "God's self-emptying vulnerability." This contrasts with our culture's dominant narrative--"the dominant way cannot keep its promises," he preached.
"The foolish, the weak, and the poor--those are the marks of true life."
Worship concluded with the crowd movingly singing "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross." One of my favourite things about this conference is the hymn singing, because preachers really like to sing hymns.
The lecture to follow was by Rob Bell, but it was largely a disaster. He was relying upon a technological presentation, but it was almost thirty minutes before the technology worked, so he engaged in a mind-numbing and at times infantile comedy routine. This disappointed me, as I heard him preach in 2004 and thought it highly intelligent.
His task was to discuss how the creative process of preaching. "We signed up to start fires," he said. The sermon should "set in the middle of culture." Also "create hunger for a food that people didn't previously know they were hungry for." The way to do that is to be constantly engaging the world with curiosity and wonder so that God is constantly giving you material that you might use in a sermon.
Since this is already something I do, and that I suspect most good preachers do, it didn't tell me much. Plus, I had heard a much better presentation of the same idea, though related to writers, by the novelist Nicholson Baker at Yale in 2015.
Whereas last year the social justice themes dominated from opening night with Leonard Pitts, this year got off to a weaker start.