If I Were Preaching, Matthew 5:1-12, Micah 6:1-8, Reflectionary

What’s Good?

My family has been watching a TV show, The Good Place, avidly for the past several years. Without spoiling the plot arc of the series, it begins with Eleanor (played by Kristen Bell) opening her eyes and learning she has died and is in The Good Place, but we quickly learn that she is pretty sure she doesn’t belong there. This week the final episode will air. The show has explored questions of moral philosophy concerning life and death and afterlife in many ways over four seasons. From the get-go they sidestep specific religions by saying no religion got it all right, but “every religion guessed about 5%.” Instead the show wonders, “What does it actually mean to live a good life?” (I wrote about the point system imagined by show creator Michael Schur here.)

On each episode of the The Good Place’s related podcast, host Marc Evan Jackson asks his guests, “What’s good?” Some mention a place or a person they love, but many take that opportunity to promote a charitable organization, a group of people working to make things better for children or animals or immigrants. Jackson’s own charitable venture is The Detroit Creativity Project, a program that offers improv classes to students living in poverty, because improv helps “students gain confidence, build valuable social skills, and overcome social anxiety.” Participants “attend school more regularly, participate in class, and are making academic progress.”

This week’s scriptures all ask and answer the same question – what’s good? 

  • Clarity about how we want to be in relationship with God – Micah 6:1-8
  • Being sure to think of how a situation or action might harm others instead of prioritizing what benefits you – Psalm 15
  • Differentiating between what the world thinks is wise and what is wise according to our faith – 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
  • Trusting that the earthly kingdom definition of success and victory is not the divine story, in which the meek, the grieving, the peacemakers, and even the persecuted are blessed – Matthew 5:1-12

Sometimes the particularly familiar texts, like Micah and the Beatitudes, are hard to hear deeply because we know them inside out already and assume we know what to say about them. I find I need to slow myself down and listen differently, and that brings me back to improv. Jackson says, “Improv is a really good communication pathway because it makes you listen and react; it makes you honor other people’s ideas; and it makes you realize that your voice is important and is in fact is necessary for these scenes to succeed.” 

I’ll be honest. I find improv terrifying.* I like more control over what’s happening around me, and maybe that’s why I like non-interactive manuscript preaching. But for these texts we know so well, one way in is to use the “Yes and” that is foundational to improv. Yes, I believe this, and … how do I react to it in the light of where I am today, who is around me, and what is happening in the world?

Open yourself to listen and react to these scriptures, and I know you’ll find what’s good. 

*My friend, MaryAnn McKibben Dana, wrote a great book about improv, God, Improv, and the Art of Living. Her interview with Faith and Leadership, Improvisation is theological, is a great resource.

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Call, If I Were Preaching, Reflectionary

Face to Face

The idea of coming face to face with God feels daunting to me. What one question would I ask if I had the chance? (How do you choose when and where to intervene?) What would I wish God did not know? (Lots of things.) Would I survive the encounter if I met God face to face? 

I suspect most of the time we don’t realize our meetings with the holy have happened until later. When we read about Peter and Andrew, James and John, their nets (and father) left behind suddenly, immediately, we have to wonder what they saw in Jesus. This is some economical storytelling. Jesus invites, the men respond by getting out of their boats; it’s the kind of impulsive response to a preacher or evangelist we might view with suspicion if we heard such a story today. 

I have heard many stories about call, to ministry and to many kinds of service on behalf of Jesus Christ. Some of them came in dreams, or in a vision, or during contemplation. I had my own dream, and a moment of feeling the divine presence on the coast of Maine, but those experiences served to affirm something that had already happened when I responded to an unexpected invitation.  

In my early 30s, I was asked by my pastor to serve on the Committee on Ministry in my United Church of Christ Association. It was hard to find younger lay people to serve because the committee met during the day. I was at home with little children, and I don’t know why I seemed likely; perhaps because I had found the time to serve on a search committee the year before. I don’t want to suggest that recruiting people for committees is the way to build the kingdom, although many church leaders have tried! No. I responded to the call to serve in a needed role, to be a servant of God and of people.

Maybe that desire is what my pastor saw in me, or maybe he was just a tool used by God in that moment. (And maybe he was just the desperate chair of the Nominating Committee!) I only know that when he asked, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. 

My preaching approach to this week’s gospel lesson has often been about responding to God’s call. I’ve asked whether we are ready to drop everything and go; what’s the measure of our willingness? It might be helpful instead to come at this from the other direction. Whose gifts need affirmation? Who could we be inviting to serve God? Somewhere in every one of our congregations and communities are people who just don’t know how much their gifts are needed. They read announcements for volunteer opportunities and assume they are not part of the target audience, or they don’t read them at all. They hear this gospel story as bystanders, unsure if what they have to give will be noticed, much less valued, or whether the story of the disciples has any application to contemporary life. They may be looking for a way to serve God but not sure whether their gifts are needed.

Yes, the men in their boats were willing, but more importantly, they were invited, face to face. Isn’t that what we are all seeking?

Would you like to receive reflections like this one in your inbox? Subscribe to Reflectionary, my Monday morning email for Revised Common Lectionary preachers. All new subscribers between now and February 15, 2020, will be entered in a drawing for a copy of my new book, The Words of Her Mouth: Psalms for the Struggle.

Call, If I Were Preaching, Reflectionary

Curiosity, Community, Confidence

Curiosity is step one in many call stories, to all forms of discipleship. My journey to discerning a call to ministry began with a 1987 visit to a Congregational (UCC) church. It amazed me that one of the pastors leading worship that day was a woman. As soon as the service ended, I found a church brochure that included her bio. Like me, she had grown up Southern Baptist. She wasn’t the first clergywoman I had met, and this experience wasn’t the first that pointed me toward ministry, but it was the first time I had seen a women serving as a pastor in a local church. 

Was this something I could do, too? I wanted to know more, so I came back the next Sunday. 

John 1 introduces us to John the Baptist and his disciples. Imagine standing around talking with people you know well and suddenly hearing your most trusted teacher say, “Look, it’s the savior we’ve been waiting for!” This vignette feels both odd and touching to me. Two of John’s disciples follow Jesus, and he asks what they are looking for, and – maybe not knowing how to ask what they really want to know – they ask where he is staying. They’re about as suave as a group of ninth-graders standing outside the high school on the first day, not sure of the right time to go inside. They want to know more, so they follow him.

Our call into Community, which I understand to mean both context and relationships, is step two. The disciples who followed Jesus that day were the first, and we are among the latest to join that mystic sweet communion beyond time and space. The greeting from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth stresses the foundation for community laid down by God: grace, and testimony, and spiritual gifts, and strength. We can find joy in the gathered voices of a worshipping community, and comfort in the sharing of mutual burdens, and power in the collective will to serve and bring glory to God. In those seasons when the world burns and we can’t quite believe it all, there are others to carry us along. 

Although the church is flawed — it’s full of people, so of course it is! — I have confidence that the call to community comes from God.

That Confidence is step three on the path of discipleship. It’s not a belief in ourselves or our abilities. It comes with time and experience and cannot be shaken by circumstances. It opens the possibility of asking questions, and working things out, and growing through our misunderstandings, fears, and mistakes. Peter’s place in the gospel lesson reminds us that even the original disciples would get it wrong, then come back and get it right after all.

Whoever we are, wherever we are, whenever in history we live, God calls us beloved and calls us into relationship with each other and service to the world in Christ’s name. Holy Confidence is a trust in God so deep that we can say these words with the Psalmist, 

Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me.

I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.

Psalm 40:7-8

If I were preaching this week, I might unfold these three steps, or I might simply focus on Curiosity. What does God call each of us to do? How are the spiritual gifts of people in our faith community compatible or complementary? What is the work God has for us in the world? Whatever it is, God invites us to “Come and see.”

Do you want reflections and images like this one in your inbox? Subscribe to Reflectionary, my Monday morning email for Revised Common Lectionary preachers. This is the last day to be entered in a special drawing for new subscribers, for a copy of my book, Denial is My Spiritual Practice (and Other Failures of Faith).