It is all about love

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Some thirteen years later, I can still remember sitting in my homiletics class critiquing the sermons of my colleagues.  Between that and a similar practice in our liturgics practicum, to this day, I am incapable of simply attending a church service.  My eyes are always looking for things I would do differently.  My ears are always fixed on ways I would have preached the text.  When I get frustrated with this inner critic, I think back to those homiletics classes and remember that one time that I really got bent out of shape with a classmate who preached a sermon entitled, “it is all about love.”

“We don’t have a good working definition of love,” I said, indignantly, “so to preach ‘its all about love’ is to only exacerbate the misunderstanding.”  More than a decade later, I still stand by that critique, but I see how maybe I could have helped more by suggesting a working definition of love rather than just throwing my hands up and saying, “quit with all this love garbage.”  With our Presiding Bishop’s inaugural sermon forever floating around the internet as an Episcopal meme, it seems that maybe Sunday’s epistle lesson is begging Episcopal preachers to spend some time talking about Christian love.

Not including the two times John refers to his readers as “beloved,” the word love appears no less than 26 times in 15 verses.  Twice, the author simply says “God is love.”  It would behoove us, I think, to help people understand what this means.  In every case, all twenty-six times, the Greek word translated as love is agape.  Agape describes a love that is deeper than feelz.  It isn’t just about butterflies in your stomach or safe-church-side-hugs or I’m-ok-you’re-ok-crappy-theology.  Agape love is about giving oneself for another.  It is a kind of love that has to be decided upon.  It is love that requires action.  It is a self-sacrificial love that seeks the betterment of the one who is loved.  Agape love is the love that brings Jesus to earth in the form of a human being.  It is the love that takes him to the cross that we might have life eternal.  It is the love that invites us to share the Good News of God with a world that desperately needs it.

Before you spend 12 minutes talking about love this Sunday, please spend twice as much time considering what agape means for the people in your pews.  Our Presiding Bishop is right, if it’s not about love, then it’s not about God, but there are so many different, sometimes unhelpful, definitions of love, that we owe it to our people to unpack what it all means.

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Preaching Pithiness

I’ve noted this interesting tidbit before, but according to a recent study by the good people at Microsoft, the smartphone age has brought with it a decline in the average attention span of an adult to less than that of the common goldfish.  Since the year 2000, our ability to focus on any single item has dropped from a measly 12 seconds to a minuscule 8 seconds.  For those who can’t focus long enough to do the math, that’s a 33% decline in 15 years!  The outside world has continuously been adjusting as well as adjusting to this decline.  We see it everywhere.  Billboards that were once static are now digital and ever changing.  Our television screens are full of information crawling across the bottom, cluttering up the corners, and sometimes filling a third of the screen.

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This bit of trivia came to mind for me this morning as I re-read the lessons appointed for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany and realized that from beginning to end, the preacher is dealing with one pithy soundbite after another.  As I tried to find a chunk of scripture to focus on, I felt my mind jumping back and forth, here and there, up and down.  I began to wonder what it will sound like to the average Christian on Sunday morning?  Will it just be a series of sound bytes that one can take or leave at one’s pleasure, or is there something of a cohesiveness to all the lessons?  More practically, though I am not preaching this week, I’m wondering how one would go about preaching pithiness?

There are probably several ways to deal with this conundrum.  Despite my mind’s inability to track with a single passage, there are several sections of these lessons that deserve some deep mining.  The section dealing with the harvest and leaving gleanings for the poor would be a fascinating study in 21st century America.  The admonition against hate and reproach could be studied under a microscope.  Paul’s play on wisdom and foolishness could take 45 minutes to unpack, as would each of the last two of Jesus’ six anti-theses.  The other option would be to hopscotch one’s way through the lessons.  Perhaps there is a theme – holiness or love – that could serve as a thread that is pulled through a pithy quote or two from each lesson.

No matter which path the preacher chooses, the battle is uphill but not waged alone.  As the Psalmist reminds us in yet another series of decent one-liners that is thread together into a prayer, it is ultimately God’s work to teach us the Law of love.  As preachers, our task is to do the work of study, to be prepared, and then to get out of the way and let the Spirit to its work through our words in the hearts of the faithful.  Best wishes this week, dear friends.  I’ll be praying for you eight seconds at a time.

The Power of a Direct Antecedent

Studying homiletics at Virginia Theological Seminary in the early aughts was a distinct challenge.  As middlers, we were required to take three-quarters of a year of homiletics, split between a semester with one professor and a third quarter class with another.  At that time, the two different professors were nearly diametrically opposed in their understanding of the task of preaching.  One was focused on argument and rhetoric, giving a list of preaching rules which shall not be violated and assigning a book suggesting a hard and fast way to organize a sermon.  The other was interested in the art of preaching, focusing on presentation and at times, bordering on theatrical.  The preaching gods smiled upon my type-a personality, and gave me a semester with the former.  I can’t say I remember all the rules, and I certainly don’t organize my sermon in “Four Pages,” but I am keenly aware of the Rev. Dr. Judith McDaniel’s deep dislike of pronouns.  If there wasn’t a direct and very obvious antecedent, you had better just repeat the noun because “this” and “that” just weren’t going to cut it.

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I wish Paul had taken a class from Judith McDaniel because, like Meatloaf in his classic rock anthem “I would do anything for love,” Paul was pretty bad at having a direct antecedent for every pronoun.  Couple that with a real hack job by the RCL, and we have a lesson from the Philippians on Sunday that ends with a powerful line that makes little, if any, real sense.  Paul completes his thoughts on the goal of discipleship with these words “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.”  To which, many who hear the lesson read and don’t know the larger framework of Philippians will ask “in what way?”

If we take into account the whole section from 3:12 to 4:1, which would make sense and one has to wonder why the RCL decided to skip the first six verses, then we find two occurrences of the same word I wrote about on Mondayteleios, to be made perfect.  The goal, the “in this way,” then is striving after God’s will for our lives, the perfection of our creation, which, if we go back just few verses further, is summed up in 3:10-11, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”  The teleios of the Christian life, at least according to Paul in his letter to the Philippians, is to share in Christ’s suffering so that we might share in his resurrection.  It is taking up our cross by choosing to care for the poor, the lost, and the hopeless more than we care about our own comforts and desires.  In so doing, by standing firm and living lives of agape love, we share in the resurrection of Jesus in the joy of abundant life and the peace that passes all understanding not in some far off time and place after we die, but right here and right now as the Kingdom comes to earth.

What kind of sermon will you preach?

Sunday isn’t just the Day of Pentecost, but it is also the last Sunday before my sabbatical.  I’ll be out of the pulpit for eleven straight Sundays after this one.  As I prepare to preach, I am finding myself struggling with what, if any, challenges I should place upon the people of St. Paul’s in my absence.  At its best, a sabbatical isn’t just for the cleric taking time off to study, fish, travel, or whatever.  The goal of a sabbatical should be for clergy AND congregation to spend some time thinking about their ministry together.  Now this is different, of course, in a congregation with more than one priest.  At Saint Paul’s, TKT will be here all summer, and he is the Rector, after all, so that vision and goals go through his desk, and yet, TKT and I have the sort of relationship where we share that work of vision and goal setting, and my sabbatical will be a time for me and the congregation to reflect on our work together, but certain for him to be thinking about it as well.  So I wonder, how pointy a stick should I use on Sunday?  And you, dear friend, what kind of sermon will you preach?

How sharp a stick will you use?

The lessons appointed for Pentecost, Year B are ripe with opportunity to challenge the status quo.  The Acts lesson is all about the Spirit pulling the disciples further and further out of their comfort zones.  The text from Romans reminds us that things are still not what God wants them to be, and we know it, and we are called to join with all of creation in struggling and striving for the Kingdom of God.  Even the Gospel lesson asks us to re-think about what the work of the Holy Spirit really is in our lives.  There are real opportunities to push the envelope on Sunday and leave our congregations feeling not unlike the crowd gathered outside the disciples condo on the Day of Pentecost: bewildered, amazed, astonished, and perplexed.

Yet even those aren’t strong enough words to convey what the crowd was feeling that morning.  In his commentary on Working Preacher his week, Frank Crouch, Dean and President of Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem (PA, not that other one) notes that our popular English translations have watered down what people felt when the Spirit arrived on the scene.  “The Greek terms describing their reactions could be appropriately rendered… as confused, in an uproar, beside themselves, undone, blown away, thoroughly disoriented, [and] completely uncomprehending.”  Are we willing to risk, just as things are supposed to be settling down for the summer, whipping our congregations into an uproar?  Is it possible, through a story we think we know so well, to help our people feel thoroughly disoriented?  Isn’t Pentecost the ideal day to trust God enough to invite the Spirit to come with power and might, understanding that it might mean changing everything we think we know about the Kingdom of God?

I’d like to have a job to come back to on August 30th.  I’m just not sure how much risk I’m willing to take?  What about you?  What kind of sermon will you preach?  Will it be safe or will your people find themselves blown away?