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Trinity Sunday, First Sunday after Pentecost
May 30, 2010
Reflecting on preaching
Discussing the texts
Process Theology and the texts
Preaching the texts
Children and the texts
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
John 16: 12-15
Reflecting on preaching
Maybe you have had this experience: Sometimes I will go back to a book that I had read several years ago and begin to read it again, but the book doesn’t work for me the way it did earlier. Other times I will have a book sitting on my book shelf for a long time and then pick it up to read and find that it hits the mark; where was this book all along? It’s probably a common experience that what was once important to us is no longer. This happens with biblical texts as well. I’ve been preaching for 25 years and, since I use the Common Lectionary, I will see preaching texts again and again. Often, a text that I once preached on strikes me differently now. What changed? Well, obviously me. I’m at a different place in my life now than I was before (pointing out the obvious). I joke with friends that the older I get the fewer things I believe in, but those few things are even more important to me now. Will the things I hold dear to me now change as I change--of course. This is all to say that when we engage a text for the purpose of preaching, one of the primary ingredients is how the preacher is experiencing his or her life now. What issues are stirring in the preacher’s life? What is going on socially, politically, economically in our community or country? The bible text can be an anchor in our ever-changing lives. And it’s okay to see texts differently over many years. Several uses of texts for preaching over a long period of time adds depth and richness to all the factors that come to bear during a preaching event. The set of texts assigned for this Sunday is a case in point. I have preached several times on the Romans and the John texts and have used the Psalm in liturgy. I’ve also referenced the Proverbs text in other sermons on different issues. Psalm 8 comes up in prayers and hymns. Life is fluid and biblical texts aim at a moving target. This is the best scenario.
On the other hand, sometimes none of this happens and a preaching event must occur anyway. Then the task is to go on without a sense of clarity about the texts. Sometimes, working harder on a text that does not easily yield to us might become a powerful preaching event. Another case in point: I’m working twice as hard for half as much on this set of texts. Where is this place of resistance in me? It would be worth a little thought to track down what part of my life is pushing the texts away from me. My brain is sometimes a mule, sometimes a monkey mind, sometimes a three-year-old. Maybe the best I can do at the moment is invite you as a reader and fellow-preacher into the struggle that is common to most preachers.
Discussing the texts
Psalm 8 is not only a celebration of the “majesty” of God, but an affirmation of the value of human beings. The juxtaposition of these two affirmations is the proper context to discuss the divine role given to human beings using the word “dominion” to express care of creation. It would be difficult to argue that such dominion means that humans can treat God’s creation with disrespect. The same words at the beginning of the poem and then again at the end provide the context for understanding the relationship between God, human beings, and creation: “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (vss 1 & 9) God is the Alpha and the Omega, the theological space in which humans care for the earth. Human beings are not nothing, neither are they gods. This text could be used liturgically in worship service.
The voice of Wisdom from the Proverbs text feels more like a lament. If only humans could attend to the voice of wisdom. It’s also a complaint and expresses sadness. It’s advice. It’s a call. It’s a text that can be seen from several angles.
It is not unusual to personify an important virtue, like Wisdom in the case of the Proverbs text. The word in the text is Sophia, which is female. The presence and the words of wisdom are meant for the market place, the public square, all media. In our own times, the words of the text (all of chapter 8) could be addressed to Wall Street and in front of the big banks and international corporate headquarters, and in the halls of Congress, and at the Pentagon and the White House, on bill-boards beside freeways, and country roads, in places where all will hear. The words are a clarion call to honesty and integrity. The text announces to all: learn prudence, acquire intelligence. Her words are no mystery, nor are they hidden. How apt are these words in our own economic climate of greed and mismanagement? “Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than gold. For wisdom is better than jewels.” “Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate.” Sophia is woven into the very fabric of things, from the beginning of time. Wisdom is part of the created order. Wisdom comes from God. Is there any more powerful indictment of those in power in the current empire than these words? There is an acute awareness at the time these documents were created millennia ago that the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few creates injustice, violence and death. Our economy of greed is not new. The chapter ends with these words: “For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Word; but those who miss me injure themselves; all who hate me love death.”
Reading the text from John, Jesus’ talk of the Spirit sounds like he could be talking about wisdom, but wisdom and the spirit are not the same. As Jesus describes the promised spirit, it will point to wisdom, “And when the spirit comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.” (vs 8) Jesus calls it the “Spirit of truth.” The Spirit of Truth and Sophia seem like siblings, family members, each belongs to the other.
The Romans text is an extension of Paul’s use of Abraham as the model of faith, which is suggested by the word “therefore.” It is the logical consequence of Paul’s argument from the previous chapter. The main point of Paul’s theology is tied to the phrase “justified by faith,” the Grand Dame of protestant theology. He uses words such as “peace” and “grace”, tying them to the Messiah Jesus. Further, he links one of the most common human experiences in a logical (in his mind) chain from the particular to the abstract: “Not only that (our share in the grace Paul describes), but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” In pastoral ministry, the abstract must always find home in the particular.
All the texts speak of the creative, transforming power of God as it moves in various forms and by many names and ultimately as it moves through human hearts. Ideals such as “grace” and “truth” and “peace” become the lure to make the best choices for ourselves, our loved ones, and for the common good. We have known for a very long time that greed does not contribute to the common good. Rather, it violates it, disrupts it and poisons it.
Process Theology and the texts
The idea of incarnation, understood as God indwelling in Jesus specifically, and others in general as disciples, can be a powerful way of making the abstract more concrete. To become a disciple of Jesus Christ is to incarnate the ideals that we embodied in his life.
Whitehead warned about the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness, which is confusing the abstract with the concrete. For example the idea of “peace” is abstract and becomes concrete only in actual occasions of experience. Other words that are important in preaching are for example “grace,” “righteousness,” “healing.” These ideals become concrete only in occasions of experience and don’t drift alone in the ether. Abstract ideas are tethered to the concrete. This is an important issue for preaching. In the Romans text, Paul is attempting to tie down to an individual, Abraham, the abstract idea of “faith.” The more abstract a sermon becomes, the more the danger of creating another “Place” where these ideas are “located.” Grace or peace or faith are located in actual occasions where these ideals are embodied in actuality. Paul grounds these ideals in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus who he claimed to be the Messiah. He further wants to ground these ideals in actual human beings who consider themselves part of the Way, or as disciples of Jesus who strive to embody the ideals that Jesus represented in actual experience. It is one thing to say that one is committed to peace, it is quit another to do a peaceful act. Hence, the emphasis in the Bible on practice. See especially the letter of James.
The major themes that are touched upon in these texts run through the Bible. Wisdom, Spirit, Grace and Love. All of these themes are inherently relational in character and all point to a much deeper dynamic between God and creation and the human heart. This is no distant God that doesn’t feel or care what goes on in creation. If someone believes that God doesn’t change or is remote and unmoved by creation, I ask them to describe how God’s love works. Usually what is described is nothing close to how we understand love. What parent would disregard their child’s needs or ignore harm and yet claim they love the child? The traditional view of God is deeply committed to a God that is, by definition, not loving.
Preaching the texts
As we watch an environmental and financial catastrophe (the latest of what seems to be an unending parade of disasters) unfold in the oil-clogged Gulf of Mexico, and witness the death of sea creatures and the life of wetlands being bogged down in heavy blackness, the words “Drill, baby, drill” are turning out to mock us and become “Kill, baby, kill.” The oil company responsible for this latest disaster has a live camera focused on the spewing pipe. Now we can all watch, helplessly, as the oil stream comes out of the pipe and then watch congress moving slowly and inexorably to limit the liability of the oil company. We are witnessing first hand the results of human greed and arrogance. The political slogan, “Drill, baby, drill” is a blatant expression of human arrogance and greed and selfishness. These words are a strong indictment against the “world” as is is designed to protect the wealth of the wealthy few against the common good.
Who is going to bare witness against this when we are all enmeshed in an economic system that benefits us personally, but destroys the created order? Where will the voice of wisdom come from? How shall we all together seek forgiveness for the monstrous violations of God’s created order? Where are the prophets who hold powerful people accountable? If justice is going to be more than an abstract, disembodied ideal, then what good is it if it is not embodied in acts of justice? A sermon could speak of “sin” in a relevant way as corporate sin. An emphasis on personal sin seems to distract us from structural sin.
Holding the Proverbs text along side Psalm 8 provides a stark contrast between the beauty that God creates and the divine intentions for life, and the deathly results of human (mis)management. If ever there was a time for management and “dominion” to be taken away from humans, it should be now. Every day it becomes clearer that human beings continue to mar the face of creation, spilling oil and spewing carbon into the air, fowling streams and lakes, forests and ocean. The continual disregard of creation carries its own consequences. Where in our common life is there a voice for social justice and respect of God’s creation?
A sermon from these texts could be a powerful witness from the church challenging the corporate and political strangle-hold that is choking the oceans and stripping the earth of its resources. “Kill, baby, kill” is the real slogan of corporatism and the death-chant of a politically pacified country The voice of wisdom is crying out as our western culture spins itself into the consequences of its own making. Indeed, the furies are gathering in the depths of creation.
Children and the texts
A topic of judgment of, or indictment against, human stewardship of creation is probably not useful with children. An emphasis upon the beauty of creation and how God’s power continues to make creation. We can be co-creators with God in caring for creation.
What is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever see? Let the children respond. Talk about all the beauty that surrounds us. End with a prayer that thanks God for all the beauty of creation and help us and everyone to take care of it.
Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for more than 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.