“Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary, use words.”--St. Francis of Asissi
This morning, I am slated to do one of my semi-regular lay preaching gigs at Trinity-Kirksville. I have done this enough now I am starting to feel comfortable in the pulpit, but I don't deny that there's a little bit of nervousness on my part as this will be the first time I'll be preaching in front of our new vicar...and she's a good preacher. But I drew a good topic--the Transfiguration--and I totally dig the Transfiguration, even though I don't totally "get" it.
In fact, I have been blessed in my years since my return to the church by being exposed to SEVERAL good preachers. Some of them have been right in my "home pulpit." Some of them are pastor friends and lay preachers in other denominations. Some are my Facebook and blogging friends, both clergy and lay preachers in the Episcopal church, whom I've enjoyed both reading their Sunday best, and hearing podcasts of them. I don't dare name names for fear of leaving one out...but you know who you are. Oddly enough, although some of them are male, most of them are female. (Or maybe not "oddly enough." Part of what brought me back in a church door was full altar rights for XX chromosomed humans in the Episcopal Church. So perhaps it's a natural outgrowth of that, that makes most of my favorite preachers female.)
None of them would fit in the same box. They are of radically different backgrounds--cradle Episcopalians, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, Congregationalist, Presbyterian, Methodist--just to name a few. Their styles range from the solidly academic, to the pastoral, to the poetic, to accomplished storytellers.
But one of my consistent favorites is Nadia Bolz-Weber, who blogs as Sarcastic Lutheran. You can read one of her recent sermons here. She's the pastor of an ELCA mission church in Denver, House For All Sinners And Saints, and well...part of her style is quite rad and postmodern, and part of her is quite rooted in the ancient practices, and all of her is rooted in the fundamental tenets of the Lutheran Church. The YouTube link I posted above is from a recent conference where she was one of the speakers. I find myself very drawn to her preaching style, which she discusses in this article.
Mind you, my tendency is to avoid being "fans" of individual preachers. I'm in church for the whole of the liturgy, not just the proclamation of the Word from the pulpit. In fact, it's probably the least important part of the liturgy for me. I'm all about the Eucharist. A poor preacher has to work really hard to spoil my Sunday. But a good one does enhance it. A message I can mull over for days afterward keeps my mind going, and can work on the ragged edges of my heart.
I've been a licensed lay preacher for almost a year and a half, now, and I feel like I'm just getting to the place where I even have a "style." In my very first time in the pulpit, I had only one thought on my mind--"No cussing." As I worked on my lay license, my goal was to show that I was willing to put the scholarship in to at least be "Scripturally competent." I truly believe one of the wonderful things about the Episcopal Church is that our clergy is academically trained in the Scriptures. As a person who takes the Bible "seriously but not literally," knowing that history, background, and social context of the Bible is incredibly important to me. I joke that in comparison, I learned my theology off the back of a Cracker Jack box. That's not entirely true--I am, after all, enrolled in online EfM--and love the academic challenge of it.
I have also been grateful that both our Priest Associate and our recent interim priest at Trinity-Kirksville worked with me in the beginning. I felt so "out of my league" early on.
But now that the "mechanics" and a comfortable pattern of scholarship have emerged, I've had time to think about the foundation of where my own preaching style comes from. I've started to figure out part of it in conversations I've had with Muthah+. She's an Episcopal priest, but she spent a lot of her career working for the ELCA Lutherans. She wrote a wonderful post some time back on the difference between Episcopalians and Lutherans here. She told me that my "blog theology" reflects my Lutheran upbringing but my love of all things Episcopalian. There are probably even a few things that reflect that I was also dumped off on the Baptists now and then, growing up, particularly Vacation Bible School, as well as the fact that, as a kid, I used to window peep in many churches--but mostly the African Methodist Episcopal church in my home town. I do love that style of gospel music.
But ever since that conversation, I kept pondering, "But what is it? What is it that makes my style "mine?" Where is it where God and I connect in this unique snowflake kind of way?"
It was Nadia's interview in Patheos that clarified this for me.
I had sort of figured out one piece of it. One piece is that I still pretty much carry a Lutheran attitude about the concept of grace. The word "grace" is a word that floats up in the prototypical Lutheran sermon at least three times most Sundays. Now, I don't mean "grace" in the "I'm a worm," sort of way, but simply that growing up in that doctrine taught me about our utter powerlessness in our relationship with grace. I am always reminded of the sheer "I-can't-possibly-pay-this-back-EVER"-ness of it. Full bore Episcopalians are a little more incarnational about grace. The word "justification" comes up a little more.
I would describe it like this: I understand grace as Anglican theology describes it, but I think I still feel grace pretty much like a Lutheran. So a lot of what I preach about (or blog about) talks about trusting in our Baptism and the Sacraments. "Being sacramental people" and "living Eucharistically" are key features of both denominations. But with Lutherans, that feeling of grace is always in the middle of it.
Take my attitude about our beloved Book of Common Prayer. I dearly LOVE the Prayer Book. It is probably what has linked me to really being an Episcopalian now. But I have committed so much of the Prayer Book to memory without even trying. I didn't sit and rehearse memorizing these chunks of words. To me, that's my surrender to grace. I don't even theologically agree with all the words at a personal level sometime. But I believe in the power of people saying these words together on Sunday can change lives. When I preach, I refer back to lines in the Prayer Book many times. (I've even used Book of Common Prayer language in front of the Presbyterians; I just didn't tell them that's where it's from.) I have not heard a lot of Episcopalians do that in sermons, although being very hooked to the words is very Episcopalian. Changes in the Prayer Book are a big deal to Episcopalians. How we do the Prayer Book is very important to Episcopalians. It's important to me, too, but I realize the way I feel about grace makes me desire to be the Prayer Book. I suspect this is an odd little facet of my personal theology.
But the other piece of it, Nadia explains nicely in her discussion of how she looks at preaching:
"I ask what is convicting me. I have to first be convicted by something within the text before my preaching of it has a chance to transform someone else. Just like the Christian life, preaching is about dying and having new life. I hope I never preach a text as "here's the problem and here's what you can do with it." I never want to do that, because it's just not good news. Good news is when God is the subject and we are the objects. You can be convicting without being preachy."
It's that word convict that caught my eye. I blurted out, "That's IT!"
Now, I'm certain Episcopalians are convicted by the text. But I'm not certain that would be what we call it in Episcopal-speak. I'm not even sure we have a word for it in Episcopal-speak. Maybe we just assume that because we are incarnational beings sharing in Christ's full humanity and carrying a spark of his divinity, we just think that comes with the package. Maybe it sounds a little too prison-language-like for our Anglican sensibilities. I am not sure it's a word I would ever use in front of the Commission on Ministry if I were a postulant.
The word convict is this weird place where Lutherans and Baptists walk across the aisle and shake hands. Where they differ, I think, is that Baptists are very "heart" about it, and Lutherans are more a mixture of "head and heart" with it. But I realize the word convict is a very very important word in my blogging and sermonating.
I read the text. Sometimes repeatedly in this OCD version of lectio divina sort of way. But until a piece of text convicts me, I won't even pick up a book. Once it does, though, I am deep in the commentaries and cruising around on textweek.com and nosing on Facebook's "The Text this Week" page and visiting "The Hardest Question" blog site. But I definitely have to be convicted first, in a truly "in for a dollar, in for a dime" sort of way.
I have come to realize that the place of conviction is the place where preaching the Gospel comes from inside of me--otherwise, I can't even begin to be authentic. Again, it's not enough to hear the Gospel, to think about the Gospel, to study the Gospel, or even to live the Gospel--it's about a deep desire to be the Gospel. Not in a delusional egocentric sort of way, but for the atoms of me to become part of the molecule of it.
This is a huge admission for me. Most of my friends know me as a "head" person. My spiritual director uses the Richard Rohr line about lettuce on me: "You can't always do this in your head. Lettuce is the only thing that has its heart in its head." I have been told before by other people, "Quit rolling that stuff around in your head and get it out in the light, where other people can see it," when they are discussing my anxieties.
But I have come to learn that this place--my "preaching place"--is a place where I become unafraid to share the authenticity of my heart.
I also recently had a long buried memory surface about this place. I'll discuss it in an upcoming post. But meanwhile, I would contend that each of us, in our own way, has a "preaching place," and I encourage you to discover yours, even if it will never be delivered from a pulpit. It's the place where we most honestly encounter God.