In the past 24 hours I have sprinted my sermon preparation in order to participate in thematic preaching for my context on Sunday, June 21, 2009.
Working through this sermon preparation, I realize that I am more out of my comfort zone than I have been in years with a sermon. This lack of comfort is not a curse--I suppose that almost any preacher does not like to have their preparation routine altered. The big changes:
1. Producing a sermon title. It's not a very good title, but I agonized until about 1:30 am on a theme. I am facing a deadline today.
2. Producing a theme. As I have previously shared, one of my preaching caveats is to keep my own agendas in check. Sure, agendas come out, and I am attempting to be real with myself and God about my biases and hope that God does something with the word I speak.
Once I owned the fact that I have biases, I ask God to do something with my thoughts and put out something gracious and useful that is faithful in my preparation and preaching. I find it hard to turn away from provocation of James Wellman's study in any of my reflections of life in the Church, especially in the Pacific Northwest. One of my significant discoveries in this book is how mainline liberal and conservative evangelical Protestants respond to the religious landscape in the Pacific Northwest. The liberals tend to respond with complaint, and the evangelicals see the religious landscape as ripe with opportunity--Wellman goes so far as to call the evangelical response to the religious landscape "almost giddy."
I know that the congregation to which I am preaching is working toward expanding their physical plant and ministry in the area--a bold move for a liberal Protestant congregation in the Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately, I have to make more assumptions than I normally would about a context, and I will need to offer rhetorical questions to the congregation about how they see their place and life in the region, their relationship with God, and their call to ministry in that place. With the crux of the issue being response to ministry in a particular place, I consulted my study tools.
This homiletical preparation also represents a passion that I continue to refine, and I'm not sure what to call it. I finally have an opportunity to preach and teach with my desired audience, Christians in the Pacific Northwest. Call it a Geography, Sociology and Theology of the Pacific Northwest.
Returning to one of my most reliable theologians, Walter Brueggemann. I consulted three of his books:
1. The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith
2. Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes
3. Old Testament Theology
Based on the title of the first book--Brueggemann's premise is that Torah proclaims land as a gift from rather than a personal possession. With land being a gift and supported with the language of inheritance in the Old Testament, it would appear that the evangelical response to the land and its opportunities for ministry as a gift. What is the appropriate response to a gift? Certainly this is a challenge in today's culture, when gift card giving has exploded in popularity and gifts in general have become less thoughtful even though they remain an important social currency. The response to a gift with a complaint would probably still be frowned upon, but regardless of social stigma, what does a complaint about the gift say about the relationship between giver and receiver? Since children are probably more likely to complain about a gift, a complaint says something about the maturity level of the receiver. The giver has a teaching moment about thankfulness and grace to the receiver. Assuming that the receiver of the gift is not a child, a complaint about a gift reveals that the relationship has broken down--whether it is mistrust, anger, selfishness, etc.
I see complaints from mainline Protestants about their context, their inheritance of their context as a disposition of living by unquestioned assumptions and entitlement. Wellman lifts up these unquestioned assumptions among mainline Protestants in the conclusion of his study: "Grace...is readily available...one must simply awaken to the fact that one is fully accepted and loved by God. The beauty of this is God's extravagant generosity. The unintended problem comes relative to the church: Why come to church for this spiritual resource? Why is the church a unique instrument of this spiritual resource? The answer is that the church is not necessary...What is important about the church? How is it an essential resource for this form of spiritual capital? Why should one dedicate one's life to the church (281)?" When I hear a complaint about the gift of land/context, I see church leaders who believe they are entitled to people's hearts and minds without deeply considering the questions that Wellman so astutely poses.
Without at least wrestling with foundational "so what" kinds of questions, why should anyone consider being a part of a mainline Protestant Christian congregation? I think some of Wellman's statements are misplaced on Lutherans because our theology diverts from overarching liberal theology on some points, but his central challenges for mainline Protestants fit, and sometimes they are hard to examine. It is hard to have a life time worth of work challenged, not to mention one's own culture. What makes these challenges a little easier for me is that I am not deeply entrenched in the cultural side of Lutheran life. Most of my family lives outside Lutheran circles, and I have a support system not wholly invested in Lutheran culture. My dear wife was raised in deep Midwest Lutheran culture, but her sense of vocation has led her to examine assumptions and not enmesh Lutheran theology with Lutheran culture. I admire my dear wife for her insight and courage. Where there may be some consequences if I challenged the Lutheran establishments' assumptions and attitudes, I will not lose all of my significant relationships, as a Muslim converting to Judaism or as an Orthodox Jew converting to Christianity might experience ostracization. My wife would not lose her relationships, either, but the challenges that she addresses represent a more significant cultural diversion. The challenges for Lutheran Christians in the Pacific Northwest in the mainline Protestant milieu are daunting--but these challenges are possible to address with God.
One of my preaching professors always assigned us to boil our sermons down to a single sentence--here is my first attempt. I leave with this sentence in order that I may take these thoughts and marinate them with the texts:
If the land/context is a gift from God, can we in the church be faithful to God if we put our energy toward complaint?