Craft of Preaching

Dear Working Preacher

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

Heart Tellings

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Red Heart
Creative Commons Image by Brandon Zierer on Flickr.


Speaking the truth from your heart. There’s a concept. Welcome back to Mark after five weeks in John 6 and is this ever an appropriate place for reentry into Mark. Mark doesn’t mess around. Short, urgent, immediate, to the point, the reader’s digest condensed version of the Gospel, Mark will not let you ponder for too long whether or not how you follow Jesus truly represents the faith in your heart. Mark won’t let you off the proverbial hook. Nor will Jesus.

Yet, there’s plenty of proof out there to demonstrate the “or not.” We need only the ramping up of the political season to remind us that words and actions are a revelation of character. What we say and what we do reveal who we are. It is that simple. Jesus knew that. Mark wants us to know that. And we often forget that.

Way back when before rhetoric was a bad word, classical rhetoricians and the New Testament writers themselves knew that the key to a persuasive speech, an argument, getting people to buy into what you had to say, a sermon, believing in Jesus, was truth of character. Essential to rhetoric is the rhetorical triangle -- logos, pathos, and ethos. Knowing your subject matter, knowing your audience, and knowing yourself. When you pretend that what you say, what you present can be bifurcated from your person, well, that’s when your chances of winning someone over are slim to none. The correlation between doing and character, speaking and character, is at the heart of who we are as public theologians. What you preach tells the world who you are as a theologian and as a person of faith. And if you try to hide behind theology so as to mask your true self, the result will be theological claims that lack depth at the least and sound shrill and empty at the worst. This is sometimes the basic truth we overlook as preachers -- that we stand on the shoulders of rhetoric in its best sense.

And if you need further proof outside of Mark, here’s where James and Psalm 15 can come alongside your sermon to give you the language to talk about this essential mark of discipleship. What you say and what you do are not separate from who you are. Period. Your words and your actions are indeed windows through which to view your soul. And those who think they can convince others of their ideas as separate from their true self are delusional.

This is a “come to Jesus” text, if you will. That is, if you expect to follow Jesus, then this will demand an excruciating examination of yourself, your true intentions, your true beliefs, and on what you stake your relationship with God. “For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like” (James 1:23-24). How I wish this would end up on plaques and bumper stickers instead of self-righteous claims toward good works and quick judgments that are ignorant of the souls they reveal.

Here’s the funny thing. So many of those who think that their words and actions are worthy of our praise do not understand that it’s their character we reject. Yet, at the same time, we spend a lot of energy saving persons, redeeming persons, lifting up persons whose words and actions damage and demoralize and demean. We posit, “They didn’t really mean it. They didn’t know what they were saying.” Well, they probably did. And in all honesty? It is probably who they are. Because those who are allowed to have a public hearing need also to accept the accountability and responsibility that comes along with such privilege. That includes us preachers.

You may be asking right now, what’s the good news in all of this? It’s an important question because it exposes just how uncomfortable and truthful this passage from Mark really is. We desperately want to hear good news when we are called out for who we are. But this is a problem with a lot of preaching out there today. Blanket statements about worthlessness without any specificity to what that means -- just general, generic sin for which you need absolution. Here’s the power of this text. It calls us out for what we are, who we are, and what we do -- in all of its particularity. Preachers, we have to name the specific human brokenness under which we live and that Scripture names. Otherwise, forgiveness, absolution, good news, Gospel, God’s promise becomes as bland as the promises we now hear from politicians.

What’s the good news for this week? All of these texts articulate how hard it is to live what we believe, to speak our truth, to be willing to bring forth in our words and our actions what is in our hearts. And how hard it is to hear that what others hear from us does not seem to be us. That’s why you need people around you who will tell you the truth when they see a disconnect between who you are and what you say and do.

That’s why we need the in-breaking of God in our world. A reentry into Mark is worthy of a recollection of how Mark begins -- with God ripping apart the heavens. Do we ever stop to consider what that action says about the heart of God? Therein lies the good news. That the words and actions of God expose the heart of God; that who God is truly is revealed in what God does and what God says. Imagine, just for a moment, having a God for whom that correlate mattered little. What kind of faith would we then have? A faith of fear. A faith of distrust. A faith of despair.

What is from within and who does it reveal? This is the question -- for you, for your sermon, for all those in whom we lodge trust or in whom we long to hope. And, in the end -- and herein lies the promise -- it is the question answered by God.

Karoline

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