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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Abingdon, Epiphany 4A, Matthew 5:1-12

Faith in the face of resistance

Truth be told, I gave the elliptical away to my friends Pepper and Lisa before I moved.
Truth be told, I gave the elliptical away to my friends Pepper and Lisa before I moved.

In our house, quietly alone most of the time, lives an elliptical machine. Its paddles turn a big wheel, encased in a plastic shell. Each time I get on it, I push the paddles, and I hear the wheel spin, heavily. We put it together on the same weekend the Beatitudes were in the lectionary that year, and it struck me then that these verses have a familiar rhythm of their own. They come around, again and again. My mother used to caution me with verse 9, whenever a squabble broke out with my younger brother: “Blessed are the peacemakers,” she said. I had no idea what that was supposed to mean. I only knew what my mother meant. Stop fighting with your little brother. It’s your job to keep the peace, even if it means giving in to make the fight stop. Take the blame if you must.

It turned me off the Beatitudes, which being a clever girl I eventually found in my little New Testament. I read them all, and I thought they sounded sad, mostly. Still, it was clear they mattered, that I was supposed to attend to them. They reflect the human condition, the elliptical way of a spiritual life. We know we are working hard, but we wonder whether we are going anywhere.

I’ve gotten on the machine when some other member of the family used it last, someone stronger and taller, and found I could not make the paddles move at all. Unfortunately, it doesn’t turn “on,” the batteries don’t activate, until the paddles go around. So in order to change the level of resistance from someone else’s 6 or 7 to my Level 1, I had to find a way to make the wheel spin first.

The way of Jesus will sometimes feel like the elliptical set unexpectedly at level 10.

When we feel like someone is persecuting us for being the kind of person we believe we’re meant to be, the kind of person God calls us to be, it’s hard work to turn the wheel, to get things in motion again, to feel actually blessed by God in the moment of challenge.

When I have to get the actual elliptical started under those difficult circumstances, I remember that gravity is my friend, and I step on and let my weight carry the paddle down, hoping the batteries will come to life. Or I ask for help, if someone stronger is nearby.

In our effort to be disciples, we may need to let the weight of the moment carry the paddles around, slowly at first. We may need to ask for the help of others who have been there before. God blesses their faithfulness in the face of resistance. God will bless ours, too.


I’m proud to be among a great group of writers who contributed to Abingdon’s Creative Preaching Annual for 2014 (also 2015 and just signed on for 2016). This is one of a series of essays of mine for the book; I’ll be posting them as they come up in the Revised Common Lectionary. You can get a paperback copy at the link above or buy the book for your Kindle here.