The Front Page

Welcome to the Front Page, the digital cover of the Wayne Press.  Here we will share with you things that can't be captured in our newsletter--videos, music, color photographs--as well as articles that reflect on faith and life.  


The Alchemy of Preaching

People ask about preaching. From long time congregant to newly-minted convert, the questions always turn to preaching. How does it work? Where do you get your ideas? The question is as simple to answer as basic chemistry. Place one image after another until they thicken into phrases, coagulate into clauses, congeal into sentences. But the questions always run deeper: why do you do it? What’s it like? How can you stand it? In the questions is a hidden suspicion of a deeper alchemy at play—a suspicion that preaching is playing with a creative energy far beyond your own powers, mucking about with the elemental forces of life; that in preaching, you jam your pen into an electric socket; you brandish a baton of dynamite like a swizzle stick; you frankenstein a monster, composing new flesh from decrepit biceps and decayed hamstrings, a new flesh to house the lightning bolt of God’s breath, the wild electricity of the word of grace; a madness that not even Karloff’s primordial squeal can render.

Without making out my vocation to be too mysterious, the suspicions are, in a sense, right (at the same time, horribly overblown). But there is a certain madness in it, a madness wherein you intentionally invite God into your self so that others might see the animation—the play of divinity in a well turned phrase, the fire of presence in a smoldering pause, the Shekhinah in a wandering gesture.  It’s a madness that presumes humans can house God, even for a minute, even in the narrow space wherein inspiration becomes expiration, in which a sound becomes a sacrament.  But mostly, preaching is madness because it presumes the word of life can incarnate in me, something a little more than golem, a little more than Frankenstein’s monster, a slow-footed and dim-witted machine not calibrated for the eternal.

And yet it happens: dirt holds breath; clay jars encapsulate treasures; and fools embrace wisdom.

The art of preaching is that both of those binaries must be honored if the act is to be authentic—both dirt and breath must have their say, both clay jars and treasures must be shared, both foolishness and wisdom must be revealed.  This equation seems counterintuitive to most of us who are interested in hearing the word of God spoken—less human, more divine, we say.  But if Jesus is the most sterling example of the word of God, then we must admit the mixture that works best has already been prescribed for us: equal parts human to divine. This mixture is certainly an unstable one—but I’ve found that God seems more interested in the mottled beauty of human and divine, than in the uniform beauty of a set of propositional truths.  It’s why the bible is a story of salvation in the first place rather than a mathematical equation, a psychological schema, or an ethical treatise.

The gospel must be embodied if it is to preach, to convict, to transform.  If not, it’s ethereal claptrap.  This is perhaps one of our problems in preaching—we’ve taken the muscle and sinew of the gospel, boiled it down to the bones (and interpreted those bones: four easy steps to salvation!), and hung up a skeleton as the image of God rather than the image God prefers: broken hearts, dusty feet, pierced hands.

There are thinkers, very fine ones at that, who seek to protect the word of God from idiots like me, who would suggest that the Word of God is eternal, immutable, impassable, finished. In short, a work of gold already.The story God tells, the theory goes, is better than the stories people tell. I don’t disagree.  We’ve been telling stories for the millennia since and the only rivals on my list are Shakespeare and Austen and—if I may misappropriate a phrase from Paul—both fall short of the glory of God.  I suspect what typically happens though is the preacher doesn’t share God’s story as much as the preacher shares a reduced version. Instead of the potent word of God, we hear the lab notes.

After all, when was the last time you heard the peculiar story of Ehud, the left-handed terrorist God ordained to save his people?  When was the last time you heard the cautionary tale that instructs children not to make fun of balding prophets?  When was the last time you heard the dark tale of Jephthah’s daughter? Or, if you prefer your rough edges to be New Testament in origin, the last time someone preached the story of Ananias and Sapphira during Stewardship season (Sermon title: Give or Die!)? 

Instead we preach a version bowdlerized from the life of Jesus—Jesus holding children, commending elderly women for their generosity, shaking hands with rich and poor alike; healing the poor unfortunates who just can’t catch a break, God bless them.  Episodes chosen for their congruence with the bones of Jesus: love.  But where is the troubling stuff: the slur of the Canaanite woman, the tantrum in the temple, the agony of the garden?  Removed.  The muscle and sinew—the humanity—that operates this profound capacity for love is absent.  And so we distort God’s story by distorting God’s alchemy:  three parts divinity, one part humanity—that sounds better to us.  But Jesus was human.  The garden matters.  The garden matters as much as the Sermon on the Mount, as much as the healing of the demoniac.  The garden matters because it reflects the possibility that divinity can incarnate in our weakness, in our imperfect equations and imbalanced chemistries, and for preachers, in our broken down bodies and non-magical words.

And if ours, yours. For discipleship is made up of this same mad alchemy. Which leads me to my question for you. I understand why I preach—it’s where the Word of God and my imperfection intersect. Why do you listen?


Posted by Casey Thompson at 10:30 AM
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4/3/2013 at 06:53 AM by Regina

Casey, thank you. I listen (read), because you convey an unvarnished truth but we don't choke on the splinters the way you make it a living truth taken from the old (unvarnished) Word. For this and for not being afraid in the process, I read (listen).

4/3/2013 at 05:52 PM by Papa

I read and listen when possible.

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