Friday, October 26, 2007

Excellence in Preaching (3)

One of the great things we can do in our preaching is to explain our faith and to justify it. In other words, preaching is an opportunity to strengthen faith through reason. It is also an opportunity, of course, to strengthen faith through inspiration, warning, humour and testimony. But in this posting I offer a few thoughts about the role of the preacher as apologist - that is, one who explains our faith and justifies it.

Take, for instance, aspects of modern life which confront us these days on a daily basis such as 'the threat of militant Islam' and 'the breakdown of Western society'. How is the preacher to engage with these issues? Harvey Cox, a theologian at Harvard (Cambridge, Massachusetts) wrote this recently,

"The real challenge of Islam to Western intellectual discourse is for us to ask ourselves whether our unprecedented modern experiment of conducting political life with no transcendent values is really working out as well as we once hoped."

In one sentence Harvey Cox combines both issues, leads us to see the deeper meaning of each issue, and consequently opens up the possibility of considering a response to each issue which invites every hearer or reader to be part of the solution - and a non-violent solution at that!

Its worth taking a few moments to think about how Harvey Cox does all this in one sentence ...

(Hint: note one technique, inviting the hearer or reader to engage with a process of self-reflection and self-examination rather than to take up a stance of blaming or cursing).

But Harvey Cox is also taking up the preacher's role of apologist. With this one sentence he justifies the existence of Christian faith in Western society. He nails the fact that it has experimented with neglecting transcendant values (code for, neglecting its Christian origins). He highlights the consequences it is now confronted with: not only things not working as well as hoped for, but the rising challenge of Islam. He then charts a way forward if the question he poses is taken up, engaged with, and answered: the challenge of Islam can be met, and things will work out better when Western society re-engages with Christianity.

When we preach, among our hearers will be people who wonder what's going on in our world, and where Christianity fits into the great scheme of things. It would be surprising if people thinking in this way do not sometimes wonder if Christianity is irrelevant to the world. What might we say that explains the relevance of Christianity and justifies its continuing role in our lives?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Excellence in Preaching (2)

Charles Simeon was one of the outstanding ministers of the Church of England - Vicar for 54 years of Holy Trinity, Cambridge, during a period straddling the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Look up this excellent article summarising his life and ministry for some inspiration and pointers for your own ministry as a preacher. What were the keys which opened the door to success for Simeon as a preacher?

Friday, October 19, 2007

Being Anglican (1)

Being Anglican is cool for some, and strange for others. It may be especially strange for those who are 'Anglican' through circumstances (having married an Anglican, the nearest church is Anglican, the children prefer the nearby Anglican church to the one I would go to if it was my choice, etc). I am pleased to be an Anglican, sometimes proud to be an Anglican and sometimes embarrassed to be an Anglican. In a posting soon I will give reasons why I am pleased to be an Anglican, but in the meantime check this testimony out and see what you make of it.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Lectionary (1)

What exactly is the point of the lectionary?

Just about every time I have been in a conversation concerning the virtues of the lectionary, someone will say something like this: ‘a great merit of following the lectionary is that, by following it everyday, it takes you through the whole of the Bible in x number of years.’

OK, let’s test that proposition out.
Monday 15 October Romans 1:1-7
Tuesday 16 October Romans 1:16-25
Wednesday 17 October Romans 2:1-11

Something is missing in this sequence: Romans 1: 26-32.

This is an interesting passage whose interpretation is strongly contested. It is also a passage which is uncomfortable for those living lifestyles which are warned against (e.g. gossips, disobedient children). Further the passage speaks of the wrath of God. Why is it omitted? Is the lectionary a tool of a particular theology (or ideology?) which seeks to advance its cause by omitting uncongenial passages? Or does the lectionary simply reflect the thinking of some very nice people who prefer to upset as few people as possible?

Personally I cannot help feeling it reflects a certain theology because a little further on there is another interesting omission:

Tuesday 6 November Romans 12:5-16
Wednesday 7 November Romans 13:8-10

Between Romans 12:17- 13:7 we have some (currently) difficult concepts:
- ‘ “Vengeance is mine: I will repay,” says the Lord’ (12:19)
- ‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities’ (13:1)
- ‘for [the ruler] is your servant God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer (13:4)

And there is the small matter of the insistence that Christians pay taxes (13:6-7).

When we talk about the lectionary we should be accurate. To say the lectionary is ‘selected readings from Scripture’ is better than ‘all of Scripture apportioned into daily readings’.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Gospel According to St. Luke (1)

On Tuesday 16th October 2007 the lectionary reading from Luke's Gospel was chapter 11:37-41.

Verse 41 is both interesting and challenging!

From the RSV: 'But give for alms those things which are within;
and behold, everything is clean for you.'

The context is Jesus at dinner having not washed his hands beforehand according to Jewish custom. The gist of the verse is clear enough, real cleanliness does not consist in washing with water. But the precise meaning of the verse is unclear. Questions which arise include these:
- is Jesus saying that almsgiving cleans a person ritually?
- is Jesus saying that almsgiving cleanses a person of their sins?
- what alms are to be given, i.e. what do 'those things that are within' mean? (Within a person? Within a dish (see Matthew 23:26)? Note the way the verse reads fairly well if we omit 'those things which are within', so: 'But give for alms [...]; and behold, everything is clean for you')

What is a preacher to do? Here are some possibilities:
- find a commentary or two on Luke's Gospel, read what is said, and weigh up the conclusion drawn
- carefully read through Matthew 23 (which is an inexact parallel to Luke 11:37-54)
- think about Luke's emphasis on the themes of money/possessions and riches/poverty: does this (for example) support us thinking that for Luke 'alms' means money/possessions and not something non-material such as 'love' or 'kindness'?
- consider the implications of the material aspect of 'extortion' in Luke 11:39: is Luke simply saying 'getting greedily and illegally can be undone by giving away generously'?

(Supposing we have wrestled our way to a conclusion of these 'exegetical' labours) our next challenge is then to work out what message comes from this verse, how this message fits with what we will say about the remainder of the passage, and what 'overall message' will be the focus of our sermon.

Excellence in Worship Leading (1)

It can get quickly complicated talking about worship leading! We might ask a seemingly simple question, what's the goal of a worship leader? A tempting answer is, to take people into the presence of God! But that raises a few questions: where is God that we need to take them to that place? If God is already present among God's people, does worship need a leader? Do we judge whether a worship leader has done a good job on the basis of congregational perception of 'experience' of God?

A different line of thinking could begin like this: corporate worship of God takes place in a variety of ways across the diversity of Christian communities; most popularly, corporate worship has been led by a worship leader or team of leaders (minister, priest, song leader, intercessor, reader, preacher, cantor, etc); and in such corporate gatherings there has normally been a recognisable point of beginning and of ending. Thus the goal of the worship leader(s) is to lead the gathered people (congregation) from the beginning of the service to the end. On this line of thinking we can set aside (at least for the moment) questions such as 'should there be a worship leader?', 'what can a worship leader do to enhance people's sense of the presence of God?' and focus on questions such as 'what can a worship leader do in order to lead a service from beginning to ending excellently rather than poorly?'

Subsequent postings will look at aspects of the answer to this question. Here are a couple of things to consider:

- how can the journey from beginning to ending be made smoothly?
(In Anglican prayer book services I notice a lot of bumpiness due to our tendency to frequently announce page numbers. This bumpiness contrasts with (a) non prayer book services (b) Roman Catholic masses where there is reliance on people knowing the service more or less by heart (c) prayer book services which do not use the prayer book but use Powerpoint or printed service sheets instead).

- how can the congregation be included more rather than less in the services? (Anglican prayer book services offer frequent opportunities to do this, but sometimes those opportunities are muffed or missed if (e.g.) readers are not schooled up to say the correct words at the end of a reading. Non prayer book services tend to have an inbuilt resistance to some forms of congregational response, but they can involve shared prayers (e.g. confession, collect, the Lord's Prayer) and songs can be chosen which enhance participation (e.g. a eucharistic song which becomes part of prayerful preparation for receiving the bread and the wine).

Back to the 'presence of God' for a concluding moment: whatever is meant by 'the presence of God' in respect of worship services, its my experience that people are more appreciative of services, of any kind - formal/informal, book/no book, with music/without music - as contributing to profound experience of God's presence, WHEN THE SERVICE IS WELL LED!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Excellence in Preaching (1)

No preacher wants to preach a dud sermon, everyone wants to preach well. Some things can inhibit us from becoming an excellent preacher. For example we may not dedicate enough time to prayerfully prepare our message, or we may have that form of perfectionism which prevents us from finishing our preparation. We will achieve excellence in preaching by attending to matters such as engaging with Scripture during our preparation and keeping our eyes on Jesus during delivery but also by understanding our own psyche and how we get the best from ourselves.

One of the most important things we can do is to ask at every stage of preparation, what is the message God wants me to deliver? As we write down our ideas and stories and arguments we need to ask that question again and again. Does the sermon as a whole present this message, or some other message(s), or even no clear message at all?

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1)

2008 is the Year of Matthew – meaning the main gospel followed in the RCL (3-year cycle) lectionary is the Gospel according to St. Matthew. This Gospel is the first in the order of the New Testament, but many scholars think it was written after the Gospel according to St. Mark and uses the latter gospel as one of its main sources. One interesting thing to do as a preacher is to lay a passage from Matthew side by side with its parallel in Mark’s Gospel. A careful look at the words which are exactly the same, which are similar, and which are different can be instructive. Sometimes it seems as though Matthew is like any writer doing a lot of copying: he shortens Mark seemingly with no particular purpose than saving ink, time, and papyrus space. But other times a change in word here or a retelling of an incident there makes us wonder if some theological point is being made.

One reason why Matthew may have been placed before the other gospels in the New Testament is its strong connections with the Old Testament, particularly its placement of Jesus' genealogy at the beginning, and its regular placement of citations of Old Testament prophecies alongside events in Jesus' life with the message that Jesus has fulfilled this and that prophecy. Whether that is the reason for Matthew being first, it remains true that Matthew's Gospel is strongly connected to the Old Testament.

Further, and this is a key to understanding it, Matthew's Gospel has a strong Jewish character. But the Jewishness of Matthew's Gospel is puzzling: sometimes it seems very favourable to Jews (e.g. when Jesus upholds, extends, and claims to fulfil the Law of Moses in his teaching known as the Sermon on the Mount (ch. 5-7); othertimes it seems very critical of Jews (e.g. when Jesus lambasts the Scribes and Pharisees (ch. 23)). A possible solution to the puzzle is to think of Jesus being involved in a kind of turf war over the Mosaic heritage of Jews in first century Israel: 'this is the correct understanding of God's word through Moses,' says Jesus, 'take care not to follow the false understanding of groups such as the Pharisees and Scribes.'