Monday, April 20, 2009

The foolishness of preaching

"You can no longer separate Word and Flesh. Once separated, once you refuse the reality of the Incarnation, you are left with a theology that is merely a heap of words." ----Alan Ecclestone

Words, words, words. Without incarnation, that is all they are. Preachers often find themselves wrestling with God and their own demons in the pulpit---nakedly, right in front everyone. That is because the best truths we ever speak are born from the womb of our own struggles---when the words are incarnated into real human experience. The best preachers often tell on themselves by the themes they revisit over and over again with success. We are drawn like moths to the flame by the irresistible urge to subconsciously exorcise our own demons. I say that with some embarrassment because a theme that constantly comes up in my preaching is the acceptance of our own humanity as a gift from God. Deep down, I know that this journey into the world of homelessness has been about more than compassion and justice for those in need. It has been a quest to find my own humanity. My Holy Grail quest has been the search for my own soul among those lost souls who are also trying to find their way home. My best sermons have always been the strongest indictments of the worst of me. Of course, the little old lady who shakes my hand at the back of the church and tells me what a wonderful “message” she just heard has no idea that I just crucified myself again with my own words.

For good or bad, my love affair with preaching has shaped the last twenty years of my life. I love to tell stories. I love to make people laugh, and occasionally cry, but the thing I love most of all is the “aha” moment. I have not found anything more beautiful than watching someone experience an epiphany. The irony is that most of the lasting epiphanies have little or nothing to so with my sermons. What I say and what people hear are quite often two very distinct things. Most of the time when someone tells me the really profound “truth” that she or he heard in my sermon, I realize that I did not say that at all. It was not even close enough to the intent of my homily to count in horseshoes or hand grenades, but there it is, some life-changing truth that I was never even brilliant enough to have come up with in the first place. Deep down, I know that most preachers are given far more credit than they deserve for things like that. I might just get kicked out of the club for admitting that on here because most practitioners of pulpit craft take themselves far too seriously. The most dangerous thing a preacher can ever do is start believing all of the kind things those nice, gray-haired ladies say after the service. I have watched many of my peers over the years begin to not only smoke, but to also inhale that drug. The next thing you know, they are sure that they really are brilliant after all. Watching that happen is often as painful as watching a crack addict slowly melt away over time.

The best sermons are the ones that we preach to ourselves about two minutes into the one that the preacher is giving from the pulpit. We know ourselves better than any preacher could ever begin to know about where we are at in life. Those “ooh” and “aah” moments of epiphany belong to you and God. I do not mind that my hearers go off to their own burning bushes while I am speaking. It beats watching them stare at the windows or count the bulbs in the chandeliers.

Not long ago, I preached at a large church here in town. A lady came up to me after the sermon and said, “You are wasting your talent on those people down there at the shelter.” Whatever kind of bizarre compliment she meant by that, her words broke my heart. They spoke volumes about how little she thinks of the people at the Mission. It is the same attitude that causes people to dump their trash on us as a “donation” in order to save a trip to the land fill dump. I could not help but wonder what made her think that a pretty church somewhere full of aging people who show up to get their heavenly tickets punched each week was more worthy of my very best efforts than the homeless and hungry people who voluntarily wander into my little chapel service each day at noon?

Like our meals, each noon chapel service is open to the public. Anyone may attend. You are welcome to drop by if you are ever in the area at noon. For years now I have offered my very best reflections, homilies, humor and stories to the people I deeply love there in that little chapel (shown in the picture). I had a pulpit speech instructor years ago who rolled his eyes every time I walked in the room. He said that I did not approach the text with enough soberness. I am ashamed to say he was probably correct. He would definitely flunk me out of homiletics now if he visited one of our services at the shelter. Sometimes we have a rowdy, irreverent crowd. Other times we have older folks who come into the warmth and fall asleep. I do not blame them. It is very comfortable in there and I have, on occasion, put myself to sleep.

My prayer is not that people will remember what I say, but that we all encounter something more than a mere heap of words. Together, I hope we are all foolishly touched by a little incarnation of faith, hope and love.


Two Auntees said...

You are obviously right where you are supposed to be. The kind of compassion you show is so needed by people who have become homeless. I worked with indigent patients for many years. They were such a blessing to me. My eyes are so much more open to all the difficulties and diversity around me.

Erin said...

Wonderful words. At our last deanery meeting we had a conversation about preaching to ourselves - I'm going to pass this on to the gang.

I'm reading a book right now you might find interesting: In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Mate. He's a doctor in Vancouver serving people in the Hastings area - mostly addicts, many mentally ill, many HIV positive. His reflections on his own attitude and his own struggles with addiction (in his case to music and work) are fascinating. I found the book popped up in my sermon yesterday.

Owen said...

For a little while I was a pastor to children. In that same church I was invited to preach in "big church." Afterwards the woman, a mother to two of the children I had charge over said, "That was remarkable preaching. They are wasting you on kids ministry. Have you ever thought that maybe you've missed your calling."

I told her a flat "No" and hoped it wasn't to laking in kindness. I resisted asking her if, in her mind, I was wasted on her two kids.

I didn't tell the lady I'd been a "senior" pastor for nearly 8 years in two small rural churches because she would have latched on to the latter and told me the same thing.

The poor and the children will always be among us.

Peace be with you Tim, where you are doing what you are meant to do. Then again, it's not at all about what we do but who we are so bless you where you are being who you are meant to be.

Rainbow dreams said...

Am thinking of how often a word or a phrase will trigger a thought that leads me to look at something in a new light and yet if noone had said anything to start with I'd be far less enlightened..and sometimes that has shaped my life in some way.
we may never know the impact our words have on another person but if they didn't want to listen then they wouldn't turn up...and that alone speaks volumes.
If I was around at noon I'd definitely drop in - so just keep those eyes peeled ;)
oh and know your words have touched me through the blogging world...
thank you, Katie

Tim said...

Thanks to all of you. It just dawned on me that this blog is read by far more people out of this country than in it. I think that is very ironic considering I don't even yet possess a visa. I am truly, truly grateful for all of the blogging friendships I have made all over the world. Maybe I will drop in on you one day when I have raised my family and I begin to travel. Until then, you are always welcome to drop in on me and experience Southern hospitality in the form of a homily and sweet iced tea, or a sweet iced homily and hot tea, just for you dear folks who do not drink sweet iced tea...

claire bangasser said...

"Dump their trash on us as a 'donation'" ---
I can relate with a lot in your blog but this comment just makes me go 'pop' as sometimes I can be so aggravated with the trash people donate us.
Maybe it is a metaphor, a symbol for the way we deal with God, with others...

As for sermons, ever since I attended a Cursillo and listened to lay folks (and priests, deacons) witness to God in their life, I find I have little patience with head trips and reheated thoughts.

You are so right: 'the best sermons are the strongest indictments of oneself'... What we find the least lovable is the most authentic!

Thank you, Tim!

Morning Angel said...

“You are wasting your talent on those people down there at the shelter.”

That's just plain stupid. Why would you offer a rich man fifty dollars, but deny the same to a poor man?

I seem to remember another preacher accused of being a "friend of publicans and sinners" and didn't that same man have something to say about this subject? Something like "suffer the little children..."?

Shannon said...

Jean Vanier of L'Arche once spoke about the broken TV that a woman offered to the community of disabled folks. "Why do you bring broken things to broken people?" he wanted to know. It's a good question.

But then, he was a good one to talk about how we are all broken in one way or another. Some of just wear it more obviously than others.