A definition of preaching: the art of talking in someone else’s sleep.
“Sooner or later, someone must take his courage in one hand and his Bible in the other, throw all concern regarding his own pursuits to the wind, and say what needs to be said!”
~N. T. Wright
Bad news is killing us. It’s everywhere and it’s doing us in. Bad news dominates the headlines and it rules the airwaves. Bad news crawls across our screens and flashes through our feeds. It’s in the email from your boss, the phone call from your mother, and the text from your friend. And it’s killing us. It gets inside us. Bad news diminishes our faith. It steals our hope. It drains our lives.
Good news seems scarce. It’s hard to find. When we do happen to hear some good news, it’s only a matter of moments before some bad news replaces it. The bad news is louder. And bigger. And more urgent. Seems like there’s more of it. All the bad news in our world and in our culture, in our governments and schools and churches, in our families — it’s making us numb.
Bad news doesn’t surprise us anymore. We’re used to it, we expect it. And as it diminishes our faith and steals our hope and drains our very lives, we’re kinda stopped looking for good news. If we do stumble upon some good news, it’s harder for us to believe it. To trust it.
On that first Easter morning, the disciples of Jesus heard some really good news that broke through and obliterated all the bad news they couldn’t quite shake. The message came directly from the divine lips of angels: Jesus is risen from the grave! Jesus is alive! The good news declared decidedly that everything broken in this world is now being fixed, everything that’s wrong is now made right; our faith can be restored, our hope can be renewed, our lives can be made full and whole. And this same good news continues to reverberate down through the generations into our ears and hearts today.
Jesus is risen from the grave! Jesus is alive!
This good news of great joy for the whole world is just as mind-blowing and history-changing today as it was then. It’s no less true for us in Texas in 2018 than it was for Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem on that first Easter. This great news causes our faith to soar, it brightens our hope, and it abundantly fills our lives today and for all eternity.
But can we hear it? Can we hear this good news?
The Easter sermon is the hardest one to write. It’s nearly impossible. And it struggle with it every year. I’ve been working on what I want to say Sunday for parts of the past three months. But it just hasn’t come together like I had hoped. It’s not enough.
Reinhold Niebuhr is quoted as saying he would always attend a “high church” on Easter Sunday where there would be great music but very little preaching. In his view, “No preacher is up to the task on Easter.” I think he’s probably right.
John Updike wrote a poem called “Seven Stanzas at Easter” that perfectly and beautifully captures every preacher’s frustration leading up to Easter Sunday. One of the lines is, “Let us not mock God with metaphor / analogy, sidestepping transcendence… / let us walk through the door.”
It’s a waste of time to try to explain the resurrection. Some things can’t be reduced to an explanation and are greatly diminished in the process of trying.
The task on Easter is proclamation, not explanation. On Easter, I should only offer an invitation to walk through the door into a brand new world where the ultimate reality is not dying or death, but everlasting life in the God Almighty of love and grace who brought our Lord Jesus up out of the grave. Proclaim the resurrection, that’s what the apostles do. And that’s what all us preachers should be planning to do Sunday.
Because our people need to hear the good news.
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” ~Acts 2:42
The Greek word koinonea means fellowship. Communion. Sharing. Having things in common. Luke describes it in the above verse as eating together and praying together. That’s what makes a Christian assembly, those are the worship habits: Teaching and Fellowship. Scripture and Communion. Word and Table. That’s the time and place where everybody ministers together, everybody participates, everybody’s heard, everybody shares. God meets us, Jesus is present with us, and the Holy Spirit shapes us in our regular gatherings around Word and Table.
That two-thousand-year-old pattern, I believe, is based on the habits of Jesus during his ministry.
When Jesus taught, he generally did it in the context of a meal. He opened up the Scriptures and ministered to others around a common table. The Word is proclaimed and then the reality of the Word is practiced and experienced around the meal.
In Luke 14, Jesus is eating a Sabbath meal at the home of a prominent Pharisee and, as we would expect, he starts teaching: “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
At the banquet at Levi’s house, Jesus gives us the Word: “I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” And he’s sitting around a table with tax collectors and prostitutes. The Table is the tangible experience of the Word.
With five-thousand hungry people in the wilderness, Jesus tells his apostles, “You give them something to eat. You engage the mission. You participate in serving others.” And then he empowers them to do just that. Then they all ate together, as much as they wanted.
At Zacchaeus’ house, the Word, the teaching: “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost!” And around the meal, the hospitality and community of the Table: “Salvation has come to this house! This man is a son of Abraham!”
In John 13, on that last night before he was crucified, Jesus shared a meal with his disciples. And some teaching. The evening meal was being served, the Bible says, and Jesus got up and washed everyone’s feet. A tremendous act of humble service. Jesus made himself the least important person in the room in order to serve others.
“Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”
Our habits together around Word and Table shape how we think and act. It shapes us into a people who think and act like our Lord. Jesus gets up from the table during the meal to say to each of his followers to say, “I am your servant.” And he tells us to do the same for each other.
Some of us view our worship gatherings as a legal duty and everything has to be done exactly right. Some of us see our worship assemblies as an experience; it’s all about how it makes me feel, so there aren’t really any rules to follow. Some of us have grown up with no real understanding about community worship, so we don’t really think about it at all.
Our worship assemblies are the time and place where our living God meets us, where we all meet in the presence of God together. We are gathered by God’s Spirit around the Word. The Word of God reminds us who God is and what he’s doing and who we are and to whom we belong. The Word has to the power to teach us, train us, and transform us to continue the Kingdom work Jesus has already begun. The Word reorients us away from the shadows of this world’s fading kingdoms and toward the eternal realities of the Kingdom that has come and is coming.
And we experience those realities around the Table. The Holy Spirit brings us together around a meal where we actually experience God’s mercy, acceptance, wholeness, equality, compassion, and peace.
But we can get so wrapped up and bogged down in the details of our worship practices and the finer points of our traditions and our methods, that we don’t give much thought at all to the main point of our assemblies. We worry about how we do church and what we can and cannot do in church, forgetting this a Holy Spirit endeavor. All of this takes place in and by the Spirit.
We worship God in Spirit. It’s the Holy Spirit who mediates God’s grace and the presence of Christ to us around Word and Table. God gathers us together. God initiates and enables our praise. God eats with us, the Holy Spirit prays with us and for us with groans we can never comprehend, Jesus intercedes for us. God gives us the words to say in our worship. God speaks to us through his Word and then places that Word into each heart in exactly the way he wants it to go. We are brought together in the presence of God and he’s the One doing everything!
We should relax about our rules and stop worrying about our methods and submit to what God’s Spirit wants to do. Instead of fretting about how we do church or how somebody else does church, we should pay more attention to how God does church.
For the past several years it’s become clear that the word “evangelical” has very little, if anything, to do with Christianity or religion. It’s not a Christian term anymore. It’s been misused and redefined by the politicians and media in the United States for so long now that it’s become a purely secular word. A national political term.
One of the more obvious manifestations of this is in the way African Americans are left out. Have you noticed that the media will not refer to African Americans as “evangelicals?” Christians of color may have a high regard for the Bible, they may focus on the atonement of Christ through the cross, they may be committed to proclaiming the Gospel, they may believe the Gospel changes lives and changes the world — they may embody every facet of the classic definition of “evangelical.” But because African Americans vote heavily for Democratic candidates, the media will not call them “evangelicals.” The term is strictly political now. “Evangelical” means Republican. “Evangelical” means guns and lower taxes and immigration reform and repealing Obamacare.
There are a lot of reasons this matters so much. One of the main reasons is that our young people now identify traditional Christianity with right wing American politics. This development has been analyzed and discussed in every “unchristian” and “You Lost Me” type of book that’s been written in the past twenty years. Young people are not leaving the Church because they reject Christ Jesus as Lord, they’re leaving the Church because they reject the national politics that appear to go with it.
That’s a problem for all of us. Whatever our national political beliefs and practices — left or right, Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal — they shouldn’t be wrapped up in God’s Church because they all eventually come into conflict with God’s ways. And our young people see right through it.
I was privileged to be in attendance at Hope Network’s Preacher Initiative in Dallas last month when Dr. Mallory Wyckoff delivered a powerful sermon on the disconnect between what we teach our young people in our churches and what they actually experience in and through us who do the teaching. Her sermon was gut-level honest and penetrating. Eye-opening. Inspiring. The language soared and the message cut straight to the heart of the Gospel.
Mallory has graciously provided me with a manuscript of her sermon, “Where You Lead I Will Follow” from Matthew 23. You can find the entire sermon posted to her website here. But I’d like to share a couple of excerpts in this space.
Mallory began by praising the church and the church people who raised her in the faith. She expressed her admiration and love for those men and women who shaped her as a child of God.
“To be sure, I was loved. I was loved really well. I was made to believe that I had worth, that I could pursue the dreams that surged within, that God would guide me as I took each clumsy step. I was nurtured in the Christian faith from the womb, loved and cared on by my community, educated in their schools, formed in their churches. I attended their youth groups and summer camps, wore their T-shirts and sang their songs. These people invested in me, gave of their time and resources to help me grow into the woman I am now. For all of this and for more, I am grateful.”
Mallory then moved to unashamedly hold the mirror up to the troubling inconsistencies she noticed when she actually began to read the Bible her church told her to read and follow the Christ her church told her to follow.
“[I] observed that Jesus seemed to care an awful lot about the poor and marginalized, giving them food and dignity, binding their wounds and healing their bodies. But when I named the gross inequities between the rich and poor in our country and asked what we might do to overcome this, they called me a socialist…
They told me about the cross of Christ and insisted this was a central feature of our faith. So I spent time reflecting on the cross and observed it as the culmination of Jesus’ consistent refusal to employ violent means. I took to heart his teachings that the swords we live by surely are the ones by which we will die, that we are to love our enemies and, perhaps, this might mean to not kill them. I wondered how I could follow this Christ with any integrity in my heart if I also carried a gun in my hand or on my hip. But when I asked my church about these things, they told me this was unrealistic, that Jesus’ teachings are for individuals but have nothing to say to nation-states, and that I should fear the nation-state taking from me the very weapons Jesus warned against.
They took me to the baptismal font and buried me with Christ beneath the waters, calling on me to live into the newness of life in Christ, proclaiming that my identity is found therein, and I swore my allegiance to Christ. But when I began asking about all of the myriad allegiances we seem to hold in conflict with the lordship of Christ, that perhaps nationalism is the most dangerous kind of idolatry, they told me I was not a good patriot.
They taught me about the early church, a marginalized sect seeking to live into the Kingdom in the midst of empire. They told me stories of the church’s courage, even in the face of persecution and death, and of their commitment to the way of Christ. But when I began wondering about how the empire in which we find ourselves dehumanizes black and brown bodies, they told me I didn’t show enough respect for the flag and for country and for every other symbol that bears Caesar’s image even while the body count for image bearers of God keeps climbing…”
Mallory’s critique comes straight out of Scripture, directly out of the prophets’ mouths and our Savior’s heart. She articulates so well what stirs my own soul and what burdens my shoulders and my mind, but what I have such difficulty describing. She perfectly says what I’m thinking.
Our priorities are out of whack. Our identities are compromised. We’re seeing issues to be argued instead of people to be loved. We think first as Republicans or Democrats, as political conservatives or liberals, and not first as disciples of Jesus. Our positions are solidified and our decisions are made through the lenses of our race, our zip code, our political affiliations, and not first and foremost by our identity as baptized followers of the Christ.
The younger generations coming up behind us see it. And they feel it.
You already know my position on all this. The United States is not going to be changed by votes or parties. It’s not going to be saved by force of numbers or force of rhetoric. It’s going to be saved, along with the rest of the world, by Christ Jesus. And his way is about love and forgiveness, sacrifice and service. And peace. Our Christianity should be defined by those things. Our congregations should be characterized by those things. Our young people need to see that in us first. And last. And every place in between.
Mallory ends her sermon with a genuine humility and grace that are sometimes missing from mine. She expresses her deep love for the ones who’ve gone before and she confesses that she is no better. She sees the hypocrisy and duplicity in her elders, but is self-aware enough to know she’s capable of the same missteps.
“I am neither different from nor better than the ones who taught me to follow Christ and dismissed the places he took me. Like them, I say one thing and do another, unaware of the ones who suffer because of my ignorance. I tell [my daughter] to follow Jesus no matter where he takes her, even and especially when it’s a path I reject or dismiss. I tell her that she will have to differentiate between the heart of God and the ways I do or do not reflect this God. I tell her to follow Christ, wherever he may lead. May we have the courage to follow him, too.”
Thank you, Mallory, for these challenging words. Thank you for your boldness and your grace. May our God bless us all to see more clearly and to follow more faithfully.
I thank God for the annual Preachers Initiative at the Highland Oaks Church of Christ in Dallas. I thank God that Pat Bills and the people at Hope Network limit this yearly experience to preachers only — no elders, no youth ministers, no executive pastors. I need these three days with my fellow proclaimers of the Gospel. The Initiative soothes my soul, re-ignites my spirit, and reminds me why we do this very hard thing we all do.
It’s a unique setting there at Highland Oaks the first week of November. It’s preachers only. And it’s desperately needed by all of us — the ones who freely admit it and the ones who won’t.
Because there are some jokes only preachers get.
There are some experiences only preachers share.
There are some blessings only preachers receive.
There are some burdens only preachers carry.
There are some heartaches only preachers understand.
There are some doubts only preachers have.
I needed to hear Chris Seidman remind me why preaching matters. I needed to hear Bryan and Mallory‘s powerful sermons from Matthew 23. I needed to listen as five of my brothers and sisters shared sermon prep strategies and delivery decisions. I needed to be there when John Alan Turner talked to us about Tri-Perspectivalism and the divinely ordained diversity required to faithfully lead a church of God’s people. And, oh brother, did I so need to hear William Willimon. What a blessing and a joy to meet and listen to this faithful teacher of preachers. It was incredibly encouraging and deeply satisfying to hear in person the heart of this great man who gave us Peculiar Speech and The Intrusive Word and Resident Aliens. I needed all of that.
But the main reason I take three days and drive six hours to and from Dallas each year is to spend the time with preachers only.
Thank you, Pat and Liz and Jon and Grady and everybody at Highland Oaks and Hope Network. You bless me. You bless all of God’s preachers.