Theological Reflection Statement
June 10, 2002
The task of preaching is multifold. Preaching informs, inspires, and illustrates. Preaching moves, meddles, and motivates. Preaching calls, captivates, and correlates; a unique combination of words, ideas, concepts, and facts are molded by the Word and the Spirit as preachers seek to (re)present the Gospel to the hearer. The proclamation seems simple enough; to say a good word about Christ. Yet how that ultimately translates into the present situation is the current question at hand.
Our task over the last few months has been to preach. More than that, it has been to conform to a particular methodology; we have adhered to the bi 216 interpretative method and sought to proclaim the Word in light of what particular insights this method has revealed. There have been many such insights, especially for me, around the areas of language and translation. These insights have shaped the messages I have offered to my church in recent circumstances. Yet a crucial question remains: do sermons shape circumstances or do circumstances shape sermons? That is to ask, which is the true respondent; the people or the proclaimer? As I have reflected over the last few months of preaching, I have spent considerable time pondering this “chicken and egg” question. Which came first; the situation or the sermon, and which is interpretative for the other?
Of course, this question rises from my recent experiences in sermon preparation, as well from recent congregational and personal experiences. To say that the last five months have been the most difficult of my pastoral career is not an overstatement. The church itself has gone through an extremely challenging time in its life, this period triggered and exacerbated by a sanctuary-building project. Dissension, politicking, jealousy, selfishness, suspicion, and downright hostility have been present in alarmingly abundant quantities. This was not altogether unexpected; as in many family systems, when a church (family) goes through significant, unsettling changes, many of the issues that have existed for years can begin to surface. Such was the case with this particular congregation; issues between persons and families, dormant but ultimately unresolved, came to the forefront in the midst of significant change.
Complicating this situation was my personal health. For the first time in my life, I was faced with the prospect of a significant health problem. Abdominal pain of an unknown origin forced me to go to the doctor, and the doctor was concerned that there might be a serious problem; I therefore underwent a rather arduous series of tests and procedures. Fortunately, these tests proved negative and the cause of the problem was not as ominous as was once feared. Nevertheless, the experience itself and the corresponding emotions conspired to give me a new sense of mortality.
Thus, I found myself neatly lodged between two rather demanding hermeneutics; that of the church’s delicate situation and that of my own newfound mortality. The problem, of course, was which to preach from; through which interpretative lens shall I view (and then ultimately, describe) Christ? On the one hand, I had the serious problems facing the church. Through that lens, Christ appears as prophet, calling the church to repentance and to renewal of its primary mission, to help make disciples. On the other hand, I had this mortality issue that seemed to have come out of the blue. Through that lens, Christ appears as one who gives life, life beyond the corporal manifestations we would cling to so dearly. The situation now appeared to be well equipped to inform the sermon.
It was at this point that I chose to go in a bit of a different direction. It would have been significantly easier, I think, to simply have let these circumstances shape the message. We needed, as a church, to hear a message of Christian unity, repentance, and renewal. We needed, as human beings, to hear a hopeful message of the Eternal in the midst of the temporary. Yet as I considered these issues, I wanted Lent to have its say.
Surely Lent, a time of preparation and self-examination, could say something significant in the midst of these issues. I therefore decided, rather than to speak specifically either about the most pressing and public issue (the intense fervor over the construction project) or my more personal (health and mortality related) issues, to instead simply present Lent and all that it entailed. Rather than have the specificity of particular circumstance wholly shape the sermon, I sought to give the Lenten word an opportunity to shape the specific situation.
Of course, I realize that ultimately this is an artificial distinction. Lent in and of itself contains situational specificity that speaks with a particular focus. The lectionary texts are components of a temporal specificity that speak with a particular focus. Yet it appears to me that the question of which informs which (sermon vs. situation) cannot be answered in any absolute. Rather, in the hallway that connects these two contexts there is a hermeneutical door that swings both ways. Each informs the other, often in ways we do not realize until after the fact.
I did not preach specifically on the serious issues surrounding the construction project, even when it appeared that these issues could threaten both the project and the integrity of the body. That is not to say that I never choose to respond in that manner. Sometimes the crisis must be named from the pulpit; September 11, 2001 was such a crisis. Neither do I consider this course of action an attempt at active avoidance. No one sought to deny the reality of our situation. Instead, we sought to open ourselves to an encounter that would reflect the light of Christ into such a reality. Our mission as the church during this season of Lent was to walk with Christ down that road that leads to the cross. Along the way, we found ourselves engaged in the processes of self-examination, repentance, and preparation for Easter. Ironically, these were the very things that we would have likely focused on if we had preached about the project and/or problems specifically.
As Easter came, so did a sense of hope for transformation. Our project will continue, with the ground breaking to take place while I am in Austin for the summer D.Min. session. I no longer field multiple phone calls each night from angry parishioners, each seeking to discredit the previous caller. There is a greater sense of unity of mission. Of course, certain issues persist. Yet I am thankful for the timing of the crisis; surely it could not have happened at any better time than during Lent. Lenten sermons, Lenten worship services, and the Spirit combined to bring about repentance, healing and hope. The discipline of the methodology helped me to allow these Lenten texts to speak without my having (completely) forced upon them a particular agenda, even though that agenda was eventually met.
Does this mean that the sermons were good, or at least successful? That is a particularly difficult question to answer. Had I felt better, had the church not been driving me crazy, and had a number of other issues (such as the infamous Springtime computer crash) not intruded into the moment, I most probably could have done better work. Certainly I could have done a better job of honoring my covenant with the other members of our group by posting my materials on time and by replying to their hard work in a more timely fashion. Had I the opportunity to do this all over again, would I have preached specifically on building and/or construction related issues? Possibly, but I think the more likely scenario is that if I knew then what I know now, I probably would have skipped the January session altogether. I was unprepared for the demands of both time and energy that this project/phase of the church’s life would demand. Yet herein lies the rub; had I skipped the January session to focus exclusively on the church’s project/phase, I would not have come to the realization about this two-way hermeneutic that I did. I would not have been able to share this through my preaching, no matter how effectively or ineffectively I ultimately did so. And, I would not have come to appreciate the discipline of our shared methodology. Apparently my decision was not so bad, after all.