Monday, November 16, 2015

Listen Carefully

This is one of those weeks where the gospel lesson seems to leap off the lectionary page and jump into a sermon even before I have the chance to do any real study of the text. In John 18:33-37, Jesus says to Pilate, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." Given the violence that has rocked Paris, it is difficult to hear these words as something other than a direct response to terrorist threats, and my challenge this week is to give them a second hearing...and a third and a fourth.

Recently, a member of a local congregation (not ours) remarked that his new pastor has done a wonderful job of folding current events into his sermons. The previous pastor seemed to plod through the lectionary with no appreciation for what was happening in the world around us. This new approach, my friend confessed, was like a breath of fresh air. But his words made me a little nervous. When is it right to preach from the newspaper instead of the lectionary?

There's a balance, of course. We preach with one eye on the bible and one eye on the headlines. We preach in relationship with those who are in relationship with the world. Sometimes the connections are clear and obvious. Sometimes they are tenuous. But I can't recall anyone every leaving church and saying, "You know, I don't think you paid enough attention to the scripture lessons appointed for today."

Yesterday, as I was wrapping up a lector training, someone asked me about incorporating things like the weekend's terrorist attacks into a sermon. Seth Olson had just preached a good, effective sermon that incorporated Paris without abandoning the lectionary. "What happens if the lessons don't work?" she asked. "Good question," I responded. Often the preacher can find a connection--as I already feel drawn in this coming Sunday's sermon--but sometimes there's no connection at all. Then, in my mind, the preacher must decide whether the congregation needs her/him to abandon the set lessons because there is an overwhelming pastoral need for a different kind of sermon. Occasionally, something so big happens that prevents the congregation from hearing a proclamation of the good news unless it is a direct response to the event. And that's a judgment call.

We went back and forth over possible examples. 9/11 feels like a drop-everything-else kind of moment. Likewise, when a tornado rips through your town, people need to hear good news in that context. But what about the death of Princess Diana? In seminary, I took a class on preaching a sermon at the last moment, and one of the examples we were given was that terrible Sunday morning when vicars across the country into the pulpit effectively to preach a funeral sermon for a beloved celebrity. Well, for those who live in England, that's the kind of moment that needs our full attention. But in Decatur, Alabama? I'm not sure. Maybe there are other liturgical ways to recognize the event without hijacking the lessons completely.

So what to do this Sunday? There's a post out there somewhere that I haven't read yet about the vanity of changing one's Facebook profile picture in solidarity with Paris without doing anything else. Is it a mistake to incorporate our collective sense of vulnerability, anger, anxiety, and confusion over Parish into this week's Christ the King sermon? The lessons are begging me to preach on Paris. Or is that just a preacher trying to project his own issues onto the lessons? Regardless, I've got some important listening to do this week.

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