Craft of Preaching

Dear Working Preacher

Insights, ideas and inspiration related to the coming week's lectionary texts.

Sleeping with Makeup On

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Image by Sarah Comeau via Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

I read recently that Dolly Parton leaves her makeup on all night when she’s away from home. She told the New York Times, “You never know if you’re going to wreck the bus, you never know if you’re going to be somewhere in a hotel and there’s going to be a fire. So I leave my makeup on at night and clean my face in the morning.” This strategy makes complete sense to me. After all, the world has expectations of Dolly’s face, expectations that she has joyfully (and lucratively) cultivated. One glimpse of Dolly without her “face on,” and the carefully crafted image begins to crumble. She has to be dressed for action.

You are creative and resourceful preachers, and other images for keeping alert will come to you with ease. There’s the high school basketball player who is never added to the lineup but dutifully gives her all at every practice and dresses out for every game, just in case. There’s the lighthouse keeper on a remote stretch of beach, the understudy for a Broadway musical, the submarine sonar operator—I bet you already have an analogy in mind that resonates with you and that will capture the attention of your community.

Frankly, using “Dolly on tour” as a metaphor is much easier for me to make sense of than the Lukan Jesus’ metaphor of the “attentive slaves” in this week’s Gospel reading. I can never shake the undercurrent of coercion and fear that maps onto God from such metaphors, no matter how much I may understand the cultural context, and regardless of any exegetical gymnastics I might undertake.  I suspect I am not alone in this disquiet. Of course, perhaps fear is precisely Luke’s point; as my colleague Matt Skinner says in his commentary this week, “Some things remain fearful, theologically speaking.” The Son of Man is coming, and, as the rest of Luke 12 will emphasize, he means business.

Perhaps, working preachers, the first task this week is to lean in to that fear. After all, as the Hebrew Bible’s wisdom tradition reminds us, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). In my childhood encounters with the Bible, my faithful and wonderful Sunday School teachers would regularly say something like, “ ‘Fear’ of God doesn’t really mean fear; it means reverence, or to be in awe.” But now I am well convinced that, alongside awe and reverence, the Bible encourages some genuine fear of God’s power, might, and righteous judgment. If we choose to ignore the warrior God showering arrows to deliver the psalmist from his enemies (e.g., Psalm 18), or if we overlook the book of Job’s depiction of God raging from the whirlwind, then we risk ignoring the fullness of God’s power—the power that heals the sick, defeats Pharaoh’s army, parts the sea, raises the dead, and dismantles the structures of sin and injustice that hold us captive.

What does it mean for you, in your vocation as preachers, to “be dressed for action?” I wonder if part of this passage’s resonance for preachers is to be alert to the bigness of God, and to help our communities see God from many different angles, in all of God’s fullness. As an Old Testament professor, I regularly field comments about how “scary” or “violent” the Old Testament’s depictions of God are. Behind those remarks are usually some really selective readings of both the Old Testament and the New, but more troubling to me is the underlying assumption that God’s “personality” must be sorted into one of two categories: either really sweet and loving or really angry and mean. God is more than any list of characteristics we can come up with. God is multitudes! The God who thunders on Sinai is the same God present in the sound of sheer silence. In this week’s Old Testament reading, a very personal-sounding God puts an arm around old, childless Abram and walks him out to the clear night sky. God answers his questions, assuages his anxieties, yet also makes (and keeps) a cosmic-level promise to him.

With bookends that move from “Do not be afraid, little flock” to “You must be ready,” for the Son of Man is coming like a thief, this week’s Gospel passage holds within itself some of that divine fullness. At the same time, it emphasizes human activity, and I know of few humans more active than working preachers. You don’t need me or Jesus or anyone else to tell you to keep busy. But this group of Jesus’ sayings doesn’t simply tell us to do more; instead, it focuses our doing on the kingdom of God. It means that we have to be prepared to pivot away from the routine and toward the unexpected. It means that, even when a beautiful sermon was ready by Friday afternoon, a Saturday morning news alert with word of some fresh horror means some Saturday evening edits. It means we have to keep our lamps lit, and we have to keep our faces on.

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