Craft of Preaching

Dear Working Preacher

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

God with Us

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Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.


The people of the world and your local community are suffocating under the weight of COVID-19, white supremacy’s carnage, ballooning unemployment, yawning injustices, and mendacious politics.

In such a climate, your pastoral instincts will urge you to keep Trinity Sunday free from transcendental musings and arcane discussions about doctrine. You have to preach into the moment.

But that doesn’t mean you should turn your back on Trinity Sunday. Instead, reflecting on Trinitarian matters will situate you precisely where you belong this week—inviting your congregation into the life and transformative power of a God who is on the move in the here-and-now.

Any Sunday provides a chance for congregations to be summoned to participate in God’s solidarity with our neighbors. Trinity Sunday places that opportunity front and center.

The Christian discovery that God is triune does not owe itself to ancient saints and scholars batting around words like hypostasis and homoousias from the comfort of writing desks and libraries. It originated in human experience. It came—and still comes—from lived encounters with a God who shows up in, among, and always for the sake of human bodies.

If your theology cannot speak directly to the real, lived experience of people, especially as a means of locating the Divine among them, you need to rebuild it. If your theology cannot clearly amplify God’s declaration of human dignity and cannot boldly magnify the love of God, a love committed to be among those who live with dignity denied and love withheld, you need to rebuild it.

Receive that as good news, Working Preachers. Receive it as permission—or an authorization—to do what hopefully attracted you to ministry in the first place: to speak the love of God into places that have been deprived of love, to announce mercy to those who have been deprived of mercy, to insist that justice will indeed roll down to wet the most parched soils.

You don’t have to have all the answers. But you get to say something. And the rest of us need you to say something. Tell us about this God who is here.

This is a week in which the pressure to preach the right thing is immense. Take a deep breath. Don’t rush your sermon preparation. Phone a friend. Examine yourself before you search for words. Then, begin with love—not the concept of love but the power of love in action.

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Jesus’ final words to his followers in Matthew 28:18-20 get a lot of attention for their explicit mention of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and for the instructions they give to Jesus’ followers. But don’t miss the promise at the very end: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The narratives of the New Testament tell of people coming to recognize God being manifest among them through the course of their experiences. The people of scripture don’t learn about God as much as they encounter a God who will not remain far off. In Matthew 28, it’s through encountering the risen Christ and recognizing divine authority at work in his teaching, presence, and behavior. In Acts 2 and Acts 10-11, it’s through encountering the Holy Spirit as nothing less than the enduring and holy presence of Jesus. The Spirit among us continues to make incarnate God’s embrace of all people.

Were it not for the conviction that Jesus is forever “with” us, we would not have a sense of God as Trinitarian. This does not mean that people of other faiths cannot experience God as intimately involved in their lives and within the created world. But Christian faith discovers this theological reality through Christ and the solidarity he expresses—a solidarity lived out (incarnated) through his life, death, and new life with the oppressed and rejected members of the human family.

Embrace and live into the fullness of that solidarity, Working Preachers. It’s not about posturing yourself as specially enlightened or politically aware. It’s about God’s people standing together as a community.

Shawn Copeland can explain the connection between God’s incarnate love and the current situation better than I can. And by “current situation” I mean the reality that confronts us right now: a world in which black bodies are being deliberately hunted, vilified, and infected. Copeland urges us to avoid confusing a Christ-based solidarity with popular notions of identity politics. Instead, for believers:

Solidarity begins in anamnesis—the intentional remembering of the dead, exploited, despised victims of history. This memory cannot be a pietistic or romantic memorial, for always intentional recovery and engagement of the histories of suffering are fraught with ambiguity and paradox. The victims of history are lost, but we are alive. We owe all that we have to our exploitation and enslavement, removal and extermination of despised others.... Our recognition and regard for the victims of history and our shouldering responsibility for that history form the moral basis of Christian solidarity....

This shouldering of responsibility obliges us in the here-and-now to stand between poor women of color and the powers of oppression in society, to do all that we can to end their marginalization, exploitation, abuse, and murder. In memory of the cross of Jesus, we accept this obligation, even if it means we must endure rejection or loss.... Solidarity affirms life—even in the face of sin and death....

Such shouldering cannot be done by [one person] alone; agapic praxis characterizes Christian community. In remembrance of the Body of Christ broken for the world, the followers of Jesus, in solidarity with one another, stand shoulder-to-shoulder, beside and on the side of exploited, despised, poor women of color.1

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Finally, may we approach Trinity Sunday with repentant and humble hearts, for a theology that is Trinitarian, confessing faith in a Holy, self-giving, and immanent God, can never become smug. Trinitarianism rules out pretentiousness.

Too often we take Jesus’ pledge I am with you always in a presumptuous way. We assume “I am with you” means Jesus is saying, “I am on your side” or “I will follow where you lead.”

The blood of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many other black bodies is crying out to God from the ground. So too are the lonesome remains of people of color whom America is offering as sacrifices to COVID-19.2 It is past time for white preachers in particular to take another look at the “with” in Matthew 28:20.

Instead of reading “with” as an endorsement of our self-serving ideologies or an assurance of personal comfort, let us take it as a simple claim that Christ is always present around us, calling to me from among “the other.” In that call I experience judgment but also invitation.

Christ beckons us out of our own fortified assurances. You have heard his voice again, probably more loudly than usual, during the past one or two weeks.

Christ continues to cry out in agony, cast out to die in abandonment.

That cry, that presence of a suffering God, must pull and not repel us.

Christ continues to show up among the outsider and the oppressed. Christ continues to surrender his own advantages and privileges, urging us to join him.

Will we be with him?


Notes:

  1. M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (Fortress Press, 2010), 100-1.
  2. https://www.apmresearchlab.org/covid/deaths-by-race
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