Why I Haven’t Been Preaching About Paris


I meant to do my TRB post yesterday; really, I did. There have been lots of thoughts running through my head, and it has been a couple weeks since I concluded my Advent-Christmas poetry cycle. So, I spent a significant amount of time yesterday pondering a topic. And getting nowhere fast.

Why was that? There were certainly enough things going on in the world worthy of deep theological reflection—or at least my theological reflection. I have noticed from blogs and general on-line chatter, not to mention my weekly lectionary study group, that my colleagues are really digging their teeth into the current racism discussions in the wake of various shootings of young black men and police of several races, the question of whether the current US Congress will roll us all the way back to the Middle Ages soicio-economically or if it will just return us to the Victorian era, and the conundrum of defending the right of a really offensive humor magazine to continue doing its thing without shooting people in the name of loving God. These things have been covered and covered well, I tell myself, as has the folly of my own state of New York trying to solve economic problems by putting shiny new casinos in depressed communities, forcing those communities to square off against one another in a “Hunger Games” dressed in nice political garb for the right to get one of the four albatrosses being handed out.

These are all being well-spoken of, and, despite the fact that—judging by the last paragraph—I might have an opinion about one or two of those things, I am not feeling called to blog about them at the moment. Then I looked at what I am working on pastorally. I am struggling to plan ways to get various levels of the RCA—from seminarians to the General Synod—to engage with the question of how we understand office and ministry and why all that just might be important, just might be a lynchpin to all our other discussions. In my waning days of classis presidency, I am pondering my “state of religion” report and how to couch that and the upcoming crowded agenda in ways that help this presidency end well for me and my classis sisters and brothers and maybe . . . just maybe . . . honor God. And I am bringing my congregation out of a year when we celebrated being 200 and when we buried just over nine percent of our confessing membership—good and dear family—while trying to get them to see that none of this means we are done.

So, as I look back over my preaching for the last seven weeks—the last anniversary celebration was in November—I find myself focusing primarily on the local, on who each of us is called to be and how we treat the people, all of them children of God, whom we encounter. None of my recent sermons have been overtly political. In fact, it causes me to worry that I am preaching some sort of Christian retreat from the world (not really a Christian notion, of course), some shallow “me and Jesus” theology that says, if we get this right, we can chuck the rest. Perhaps I have misplaced my social conscience. Perhaps I have forgotten that Christ came to redeem all of creation, and that each of us shares that responsibility in our shared baptism.

But I review these sermons, and I think not. There are references to the world events cited above and many others in all of those sermons. Then I look ahead to this Sunday: in defiance of the Revised Common Lectionary and, perhaps, homiletic common sense, I am preaching on the whole of John, chapter one. I am doing this because, weeks ago, in my first level of preaching and planning for this sermon, I was struck by how that chapter goes from the cosmic and eternal—“in the beginning was the Word . . .”—to the specific, the immediate, and the mundane—a bunch of guys by the Jordan, with everyday jobs, in a time-scheme being measured out by the days and hours, asking the new guy where he was staying the night.

Yes, but that was weeks ago, and stuff has happened, and maybe we ought to set this aside and look again. Clearly, I have considered it. But no; I am more drawn than ever to the idea that there is a huge difference between loving all creation, all of humanity, and loving specific people, slow-witted, stubborn, prejudiced, sin-filled people. CS Lewis talks about it in The Screwtape Letters, referring to the difference between the abstract concept of going to church and the actuality of being there, listening to a choir that may be off key and a sermon with its dull points while sitting next to people whom one often dislikes for generally good reasons. And it seems to me that we often use the cosmic to excuse ourselves from the specific: just yesterday morning, as I was talking to some colleagues about the problem of our classis not always caring well enough for its ministers, we began to veer off into the various religious, institutional, and macro-economic problems that lead into that, until somebody finally pointed out that this was all well and good, but none of it negated our calling and responsibility to actually provide the care, not just in 15 to 20 years when social forces sorted themselves out, but today.

This has helped me, this morning, get all of these varied threads into focus. Jesus, upstream just a few dozen yards from his cousin John, could have launched into the first of dozens of stump speeches about the problems of Rome, the problems of Jerusalem, and how Torah and the prophets spoke to all of them, and he would have been quite correct and, no doubt, persuasive. Instead, he focused on helping over-eager Andrew focus his urge to be helpful, on giving Peter a positive spin for his obstinance, on helping Nathaniel get past his prejudice—yes, he would transform and lift up the gifts of women, too, just not in this story. Jesus casts a great eschatological, triumphalist vision at the end of the chapter, a mirror to how the chapter began, but he strongly indicates that we get there through the immediate and individual. We get to the eternal by dealing with our own hearts, our own relationships, here and now. We begin dealing with the cosmic issues of terrorism, racism, violence, and injustice starting with how we deal with the person in front of us and building on that.

This seems to be why I’m not preaching about Paris, or Ferguson, or Staten Island, or Albany right now. I think this is what I am supposed to be preaching, even though my colleagues preaching on the other things, often out of the same lectionary, are bloody brilliant, and I wish I could be listening to them this weekend. It isn’t better, or worse, just where the Word is calling me at the moment. Your mileage may vary.

And I really am working on getting these blog posts out sooner. I promise.


One thought on “Why I Haven’t Been Preaching About Paris

  1. Beautifully said, James. Sometimes it all gets to be too much, and we have to narrow the focus to just what is right in front of us on any given day, and in doing so, we change the world.

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