June 7, 2009
See also: [Year B Archive]
Reflecting on Preaching:
I would like to share the process I often use in preparing for a sermon. I do not use a manuscript, and use notes occasionally. Usually, I prepare early in the week by simply reading the texts, thinking about them, and then I put them to the back of my mind. There the texts do not sit dormant. The process is like yeast that takes awhile to do what yeast does. Another image is like the process of clams creating pearls. It begins with a small grain of sand that finds it’s way into the soft, folded, layers of clam flesh--or inserted intentionally. There the grain of sand becomes an irritant that the clam isolates and encases, therefore rendering it safe. But what is produced is a beautiful pearl. In a similar way, I seed my mind with the texts, where, in my unconscious mind, they become irritants, and my mind works to resolve tensions, anomalies, contradictions. The texts do not sit dormant. This is a living process and requires a deep sense of trust in the ability of the unconscious mind to be imaginative and creative. I simply allow the process to do its work, which produces some surprising connections to other texts or to life as I experience it. I then work with the texts directly on Saturday and tease out of my imagination a structure that has already taken shape in my unconscious mind. The sermon is then delivered freshly and provocatively on Sunday mornings. It requires more work in the pulpit, but it feels like something that comes hot out of the oven. The sermon can be something that is distinct and (hopefully) beautiful and thought provoking. I often take the congregation through a similar process in the sermon that I went through the previous week. Most of the time it works well, but occasionally it leads into a wilderness of more images and questions. This is not the safest way to create sermons, but there is a greater likelihood of bringing the texts alive. This is an overt way of using Carl Jung’s understanding of the unconscious mind and the creative activity that the mind can produce. I believe that biblical texts can be instruments for transformation. Preaching a sermon, then, is an act of trust. Alfred North Whitehead said that it is more important that something be interesting than that it be true.
There is a rhythm to this method. I find that for preaching regularly, the mind has a way of estimating the process so that when the time for preaching comes, it is fresh. If the rhythm is disrupted, the sermon that is preached can be premature and gasping for air, or dead on arrival. It can be under-thought, or over-thought.
Discussing the Texts:
If there is any theme that holds these texts together, or if there is a silver thread that runs through them, it is the nature of God’s power and how God operates in the world. This is a common theme in the Bible. Other questions follow from this: what kind of power does God possess? What does it mean to be in the presence of God, and what does it mean to be in God’s sphere of influence, i.e., what is the kingdom of God? And so on.
The Psalm is a fairly blunt and standard enthronement liturgy. The poem calls the reader to ascribe glory to the Lord. Strong language is used throughout and is mediated through the voice of the Lord: the voice “thunders,” it is “powerful,” “full of majesty,” it “breaks,” “flames of fire,” “causes to whirl.” There is no doubt in the writer’s mind where the power of creation is located: the throne of God.
Likewise, the Isaiah text uses similar enthronement language. Here not only the temple is filled with God’s presence, but the whole earth
It’s interesting to note that these first two texts are either addressed to heavenly beings, or are articulated by heavenly beings. There seems to be a lot of activity going on between the throne of God and the earth. “The whole earth is full of his glory.” The speaker in Isaiah is not a passive observer, but is drafted into God’s service, while expressing fear, not only at this display of shock and awe, but that he is given the order to speak for God; he is deputized to be God’s envoy. He is acutely aware that he is unfit to be in the presence of God and is surprised to find that he has seen God and survived. The visual play of touching a hot coal to his mouth seems scary, heavy, and loaded with implications of the gravity of that this divine task might require.
In the John text, Nicodemus acknowledges that Jesus couldn’t be doing the amazing things he does without being in the presence of God. But then Jesus immediately diverts the conversation and begins talking about being born again and being born from above and seeing the kingdom of God. And Jesus talks of the spirit behaving like the wind, all of which seems to confuse Nicodemus. It’s as if Nicodemus asks Jesus to teach him about what he represents, but Jesus says it’s blowing in the wind. What kind of answer is that? What kind of teacher is this? This text seems to move in so many directions that it mystifies the reader in a similar way that confused Nicodemus. We see his confusion, but we can’t feel superior to him because we are confused in the same way by Jesus’ words. The reader, if trying to follow the text closely, ends up feeling disoriented and is provoked to ask a host of questions: What does it mean to be born again? Where is “above” located. Jesus’ response to Nicodemus--and to us--might be an effort of undermining our illusory attitude of thinking they (and we) know what Jesus is saying and doing and what he is pointing to. Nicodemus represents someone who is educated, probably intelligent, with status in his community. He is a leader. He also might represent someone who believes that to know and understand something is to possess it. He says “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” Jesus pushes back at the questions, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Jesus continues, “We know things, we’ve seen things, yet you don’t receive our testimony.” He goes on to more confusion about earthly things and heavenly things; he makes reference to Moses lifting the snake up and, in a similar way, the Son of Man must be lifted up. It might be the case that the whole passage is a cypher, a cryptic puzzle, a paradox. It is a teaching tool of disorientation, designed to undermine arrogance and self-confidence.
The famous verse John 3:16 is plastered in many places these days. It appears at sporting events and at protests against this or that, as if knowing the meaning of that verse is somehow self-evident. There is an arrogance in the conceit that someone “knows” God, or understands how God operates in such a way that such knowledge gives us an edge with God. Such arrogance. It might very well be the case that using John 3:16 in this way is a display of smugness and arrogance, the very attitude Jesus resisted in Nicodemus.
In light of the obviousness of the two texts from the Jewish scriptures, the claim that God loves the world is meant to throw us off our delicate intellectual balancing act of smugly possessing some knowledge of God that seems to give us an edge over God. God’s ways are as mysterious as the wind; we can’t control it, but we see the effects of it. But what is love, but an experience of mystery, and unseen mover? God loves the world so much that God is willing to take all the risks associated with loving. I can no more completely--or even adequately--understand the love a mother has for a child, or a father for his wife, or one friend has for another friend, than I can understand the divine movements of love. We know God’s love by its effects. Jesus might say, we know the movements of God’s love by its fruits.
The Romans text makes an important distinction in how to view God and the world. These aren’t two separate realities, flesh things, and spirit things. They are two ways of living in this world. The place to begin to understand God’s love is in humility and profound respect for God. Aristotle said that philosophy begins in wonder. Similarly, religion begins in wonder. Which brings us to the first of the two commandments Jesus held to be ultimate and has nothing to do with knowledge. To love God means to treat God with respect. To love our neighbor (the other) is to treat them with respect.
Process Theology and the Texts:
At the heart of process theology is the affirmation that God’s power is persuasive and not coercive, hence the use of the word “love” as the primary category to define God’s power. Love is essentially persuasive. It’s hard to think of love as coercive; it goes against our common understanding of the nature of love.
I think Jesus’ use of the term “Kingdom of God” can be seen as a parody of earthly kingdoms. His language is intentional and I believe meant to undermine our sense of mastery over our own lives. Our sense of power and control over our lives is illusory and dangerous. There are consequences to living a lifestyle that ignores the reality of God’s power at work in our lives, quietly luring us, goading, inviting each one of us to chose life from moment to moment. Images of God that the Jewish scriptures point to are often metaphorical, using terms like Divine Lover, or Divine Poet, or Creator. Jesus wants to shift our world view to a place were we acknowledge that the whole earth is the realm of God’s concern and action. All the earth is sacred ground because God’s glory is evident in all the earth.
Process theology acknowledges much the same point when it envisions God being involved in every moment everywhere in the whole world, a power that coaxes and invites each moment into the next moment. God’s power is pervasive and effective everywhere there is existence.
Preaching the Texts:
One way of handling these texts is to focus on how disorienting it is to have God described in ways that we can’t control. Jesus’ method of teaching about God is unsettling. There are similarities in teaching method between Jesus and Buddha. Their methods challenge our basic assumptions about life. They intend to disorient and confuse. Jesus’ disciples complained that his teachings were often confusing. Jesus even says as much. A sermon could address the issue of why Jesus taught this way. What are the assumptions that Jesus would like to challenge? He takes aim at our smugness and arrogance of thinking that if we know enough about God, we could somehow control God. Jesus’ teachings, and much of the rest of the Bible, are an effort to lay bare our reliance on our system of securing our future on our own terms. If we think of the Kingdom of God as a world in which justice, reconciliation and peace are practiced, then why do we need guns and missiles and bombs? The world which has been constructed with human hands is far from Jesus’ description of the Kingdom of God. The world of human manipulation leads to fear and injustice and death. Another question is: who benefits from this “rigged” system? The obvious answer is the rich. The biblical word for this system is “sin.”
Or a sermon could focus on the crude, Sunday School images of God that people carry around in their heads. Many people are stuck at the age of six, theologically. They have not progressed beyond the images of stick-figure stories and happy endings and what is called the “vending machine” image of God. People still hold on to the idea of God being all-powerful, or in control of everything. The current crop of atheists attack this version of God in their books. It doesn’t take a philosophy student of logic to discredit this straw man. I don’t believe in the God they don’t believe in. So what’s the point of rehashing their tired arguments? The preacher could highlight the classic paradox, or contradiction, that if God is all powerful and all loving, then God is the author of evil. The two horns of this dilemma unmask the untenability of the idea of omnipotence. The problem is circular and, in my view, reveals the absurdity of the idea of God’s power as coercive and manipulative. Let’s be done with empire religion and the view that God is in control, therefore the way things are is the way God wants them. The the Bible describes a much more dynamic, nuanced, view of God. Jesus used dynamic images from nature to describe God’s power. In the John text for this week, Jesus affirms God’s love for all the earth and yet describes it as intellectually slippery and impossible to grasp, like the wind. God is beyond our complete understanding and control.
Children and the Texts:
When I was young like you, I remember seeing Santa Claus for the first time at Sears. My mother seemed to be pleased for me to see him and encouraged me to approach him and, even worse, to sit on his lap. I was frightened and didn’t want to approach Santa. I was not prepared. I had not been a good enough boy, in my mind, to be in the same room as Santa. There he sat, on a big chair that looked like a throne. And he had these “helpers” around him who were dressed strangely. I think I was more afraid of Santa than I was of God, but there seemed to be little difference between the two in my mind. I thought Santa should just go back to the North Pole and God should go back to heaven. Is that how you see God? I know some people do. Do you think God is like that, big and powerful and sitting on a throne with helper angels around him?
The preacher can then offer other, more appropriate, images of God, such as the ideal Mother or Father or Lover. Also other images can be used like God as an eagle or a mother hen.
Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.
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