Leading the Church into the Text
Leading the Church into the Texts
by Matthew Flemming

There are weeks when lectionary texts seem to soar to heaven. Weeks when we are able to point to scripture and proclaim the promises of God fulfilled. Weeks when we are able to preach about healing, and new life and the joy of new found hope in God’s church. This is not one of those weeks. Our texts for Proper 23 (28), October 11, 2009 are filled with tension and anxiety. Our scriptures from the Old Testament express the pleading of the suffering faithful seeking to the presence of God to while our New Testament texts ask profound questions about the nature of God and our salvation. As we decide what texts to preach this week, let us begin by attempting to prayerfully discern which text gives voice to God’s claim on our congregation at this moment in time.

Both Job and the Psalmists offer the lament of those who seek to maintain their relationship with God amidst their pain while not giving into the temptation that their struggles are always the product of their own sin. Often when we look out upon the wreckage of the world we are able to point to sinful deeds or the fallen systems we inhabit. Although the sermons that arise from this witness contain their own challenges, the ability to name cause and effect within a crisis provides an avenue to name what is happening in the life of our congregation. This assists the church in giving itself over to God enter into the hope that God’s grace will heal our brokenness. However, there are times when the mathematics of cause and effect do not add up. We serve congregants whose spouse has come home and told them that the life they built no longer matters enough to them to save; that they are leaving for someone else or the idea of someone else. There are congregants whose children are diagnosed with cancer or fall into the grip of drugs or are killed in a car accident. What do we say to those for whom justice has become a foreign concept? What do we say to those whose righteousness seems not to have any currency with God?

Of course we know from scripture that rain falls on the righteous and unrighteous. We know from scripture and the theology of our church (whatever church that may be) that our faithfulness is meant to be a response to God’s grace rather than a quid quo pro that is meant to be rewarded with an easy life. However, such moments rarely call for meditations on the nature of divine justice. Instead they call for sermons which embody people’s desperate desire to stand in the presence of God and communicate their grief and confusion. As in the case of Job, these are moments of great faithfulness. People are rejecting the temptation to turn away from God. Instead they choose to live in the hope that God will hear their pleas and respond. If we are preaching to congregants whose relationship with God in some way mirrors what is voiced in one of our Biblical texts, it is important to begin with the acknowledgement that we are engaging something sacred. When we proclaim the Word to people who are struggling in the darkness of an experience of God’s absence we are not only pointing to the presence of God which they may not be able to see or offering a prayer that they cannot pray at this time. We are also affirming the reality of their struggle, its difficulty and its pain.

Scripture consistently pushes against a separation of the material and the spiritual. Although, in our society, we can spend much of our lives defying this vision of reality by dividing our lives into discrete and manageable segments, when we are thrown into crisis these seemingly distinct parts of our lives come crashing together.

One of the blessings of my job is that I am able to travel to different parts of the country to serve churches or communities of pastors by preaching or sharing my academic work. Wherever I have gone this year there has been a palpable sense of anxiety present. Mostly this is due to the economy but there are other sources as well. Those that serve in military communities have watched their loved ones come and go for nearly seven years. Many denominations continue to be consumed by painful disputes and the possibility of schism. Others feel betrayed by Wall Street or the government or the state of politics or the media or…or…or.

Whatever the state of our individual congregation, we are faced with the potential of sinking into a malaise of disillusionment. At these moments the church desperately needs its preachers. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together that disillusionment can be a blessing because it destroys a harmful idealism that substitutes daydreams for the dirty and difficult reality of living in community with one another. Bonhoeffer believed that: “Through disillusionment we begin to be what we should be in God’s sight and begin to grasp in faith the promise that is given to the church.” Preachers are given the task of holding up scripture and proclaiming the image of the world that is visable through that lens. We have the responsibility of offering God's claim upon that world through the promises of God present in the Biblical text.

When people lose their jobs or are wounded by illness or loss, the resultant crisis is not merely material or physical it is spiritual. Often it is the destruction of the narrative to which they have dedicated their lives be it a vision of the “American Dream” or a vision of God that is no longer sustainable. When we proclaim the promise of God into this void we have three tasks. The first is to name the disillusionment present. The second is to proclaim scripture as an alternative story. The third is to practice what we preach by becoming a church that embodies the Word we proclaim.

These are difficult tasks. They are certainly beyond the reach of our wisdom and the power of our rhetoric. As preachers what we have is the Biblical text and the connection to the lives of our congregants born out of the completion of our pastoral tasks week after week. One of the great challenges for preachers is to trust that speaks through these sources.

Sitting here in north Georgia, I cannot tell you what to say to your congregation. But I can encourage you to trust God and your calling as you prepare your sermon this week. As you select your text think through how each one gives voice to what God is doing in the life of your church. What does each text name about your current circumstances? How does the langue of scripture shape how you understand what is going on in the life of your congregation. At that point, stand boldly in the midst of scripture and let the text name the anxiety or grief among you. In conversation with the theology of your church, let the struggles expressed in your pericope point to the promise and vision of God communicated by scripture. Let them provide a model of faithfulness during times of struggle for your church to follow.

Trust that you are capable of completing the task ahead. The Word you proclaim this week cannot be spoken by anyone else. Whether it is the right Word for next week or next year does not matter, it is what God is saying to your church at this time, in this place. Whatever the outcome, through the work of the Holy Spirit what you proclaim will be enough. May God bless you as you serve the Church this week.

(from www.goodpreacher.com/blog/)