If I Were Preaching, Reflectionary

Practice What You Preach

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”

Matthew 23:1-3

We’re living in complex and, for many of us, distressing times. Writing from the U.S., it’s impossible to think about this week’s lectionary texts without also thinking about our oncoming Election Day. Running through my head as I write this are stories of voter intimidation, an invitation to a workshop about de-escalating potential violence at the polls, and fears over what will result from the swearing in of a new Supreme Court justice.

How will we preach toward the election? For some of us, it might feel easy. We know our congregations and the way people feel about the state of the world and their hopes for what is to come. For some of us, it may feel impossible. Nothing we say will not be misinterpreted by someone. 

Yet somehow we must offer the needed word God calls us to speak.

I’m struck by Jesus, pulling no punches: Do what the religious leaders teach you, he says, “but do not as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” It’s a power analysis that applies to our current situation. Jesus does not critique the law; he calls out the authorities. We, too, see people in power who do not live by the rules they would apply to everyone else, who place burdens on ordinary people they would not carry themselves. Jesus calls on us to live by the principles of our faith. The epistle points in the same direction. Writing to the Thessalonians, Paul is “urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God.” (1 Thessalonians 2:12)

Practice what you preach. And this week, preach what you practice.

It’s said that every preacher has only one sermon, or two or three, representing the motivating core ideas of their faith. What lies at the core for you? I propose you call on those themes and ideas in this Sunday’s sermon. Be clear with yourself first about the elements of faith in Jesus Christ that animate you and will be so familiar to your congregation to be unsurprising. Lay them out in your sermon, and make note that these ideas are nothing new, coming from you. “You’ve heard me say this so many times. This is my deepest belief, my central understanding of who God calls us to be.” I’m not usually inclined to draw from texts outside the current week’s, but this is a good time to call up the familiar, whether it’s the Great Commandment from last week or some other passage with particular meaning for you that the congregation will remember having heard from your mouth. “Jesus says this, and Paul says it this way, and you know how many times I have stressed it in this particular way.” 

Last week, my seminary, Andover Newton, offered some opportunities webinars for alums as part of Yale Divinity School’s Convocation. One of my favorite professors, Dr. Gregory Mobley, gave a talk called “Embracing the Prophetic Moment.” He reminded us that “Prophetic work is not just the work of people who get famous.” 

It’s my work, and it’s yours. Speak to the people you serve in words they will know have come from your heart. I will be praying for you. 

Prayers for Pastors

Storm Surge (a prayer for pastors)

In the eye of a hurricane there is quiet, for just a moment, a yellow sky.”
(Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Hurricane” in “Hamilton: An American Musical”)

Holy One,
Storms surge beyond human-made barriers.

Waves break beyond their bounds,
and winds blow heavily,
destroying homes and taking lives.

We pray for the injured,
the homeless, and the bereaved.
Have mercy, Lord.

Storms surge due to human action.

Words break beyond old norms,
and arguments spin out,
distressing minds disturbing peace.

We pray for our leaders,
the reasonable, and the reckless.
Have mercy, Lord.

Storms surge in human hearts.

Wounds break open again,
and memories burn,
tears are shed,
or worse, held back.

We pray for ourselves,
our hearts, and our spirits.
Have mercy, Lord.




How the Sausage Gets Made

aaron burrNo one really knows how the game is played
The art of the trade
How the sausage gets made
We just assume that it happens
But no one else is in
The room where it happens.

~Aaron Burr, in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton

I’ve known plenty of people in politics. My dad was in politics. Politicians, like most human beings, exist on a spectrum from noble to well-meaning to pragmatic to misguided to selfish to downright evil. Whatever their moral character, politicians do work behind the scenes to accomplish their goals. The Constitutional Convention was closed to the public with no minutes taken exactly in order to give the delegates freedom to debate and change their minds.*

It’s not different for pastors. There are things we do behind the scenes, in private, most of us adhering to the highest ethics, I hope, and yet we are blamed and called out for not being where someone else wants us to be, not revealing what someone wishes we would say, not making the pivot exactly when someone demands our loyalty.

Students of history will know that in politics it has always been hard to get the true story, that the press has always been manipulated for the sake of ideology and also for the sake of commerce, that politicians have phrased things carefully in order to avoid revealing truth without actually being caught in lies. What we didn’t have in the past was a digital “paper” trail. The potential for embarrassment is huge now, and while I deplore the idea of one candidate encouraging foreign hackers to look into the other presidential candidate’s deleted emails, I also deplore the careful answers used by the other candidate.

We’re at a bizarre crossroads. Some people think it’s okay to say anything, while others continue to abide by more traditional rules of public discourse. One could probably afford to risk a little more vulnerability, while the other really could use an injection of temperance. We might be able to understand her defensive posture, given the history of lies told about her. We might even be able to understand his aggressive nature, because in the story he tells himself, that stance works and has been working.

Meanwhile advisers on a bus try to figure how to spin things and still make their gal a winner, and meanwhile the other guy is sitting on his plane grinning widely and eating fried chicken for his dinner.**

The most telling piece of the Democratic convention for me was the film about Dorothy Rodham, who sent 4-year-old Hillary back out into the fray to figure out how to deal with bullies by herself. Imagine a life informed by that moment, and then add to it the influence of a mis-attributed but supposedly Wesleyan principle of doing all the good you can, and you have a formula for figuring out how to get done what you believe needs to be done, however you can get it done, for as long as it takes to get it done.

History may tell us, someday, what really happened, whether the emails were really a national security scandal, or a case of privileged arrogance, or (my guess) the result of a person with important things to do creating her own workaround to match the reality of today’s communication demands, rightly or wrongly. History will also likely consider whether the other guy got into it mostly to prove that he could win it by being outrageous, and then couldn’t get off the track he laid out for himself. And for us.

I don’t want to be cynical. The politician who raised me lived out a careful balance of working toward compromise where beneficial for the whole and staking out his principles where meeting in the middle would compromise his integrity. There is nothing simple about governing that way. It requires intelligence, patience, nuance and bone-deep righteousness. I really hope that’s what she has, because under the circumstances, I’m with her.

*Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (The Penguin Press, 2004), p.228.
**A one word quote from “Hamilton” probably doesn’t count as a quote, but if the soundtrack is burned on your brain as it is on mine, I’ll bet you heard it that way.