Craft of Preaching

Dear Working Preacher

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

The Ability of Ableness

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"We are able." Wow. We are so certain, aren’t we? We think we are capable of so much. We really do. And why? What is it about us that we locate our ableness in our own efforts? What is it about us that we insist that autonomous assertions will absolutely secure our future? What is it about us that we determine any and all capabilities to our own works?

While ability is a synonym for ableness, I want to make a slight distinction for the purpose of preaching this passage from Mark. The disciples make a claim of certainty, “we can” which is different, I think, than a confidence in a perceived ability. A slight distinction, but an important one.

Let’s start with the call of this text to you. We will get to the possibilities of how to preach it in a bit, but I wonder if this is our entry point. “I am able. I can!” Have you ever said that? Admitted it? Does your leadership live by it? Are you a pastor because you believe it?

And thus we have entered the land of not being able to say no, of not trusting in our own gifts, of acquiescing to demands rather than standing up for what is essential in our ministry. This is such an easy place to enter, to be a part of. So easy to slip into.

This may be a call to you, preachers. How much you say “I am able” when really you are not. Not because of your own faults. Not because of your inabilities. But because what is being asked of you is not who you are. But because your willingness to say “yes” betrays that which you have said you will not do.

I am writing this, in bits and pieces, as I am one of the presenters and preachers at our Celebration of Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary, along with Otis Moss III, Luke Powery, Barbara Lundblad, Michael Brown. Thank God, literally, I was first of the plenary sessions. Why do I think that? Because our claim to ableness is always couched in our disbelief that we are.

I want to be able. I think, for the most part I “can.” But put up against “awesome preachers”, am I?

This is at the heart of “we are able.” Rather than an indictment, to what extent we have to hear this as what the disciples are capable of saying in that moment. We say we are able in the moment. And maybe that’s all we can do. And what is wrong with that?

Nothing.

Ableness is contextual. Ableness is reactionary. Ableness is responsive. Ableness is not that which determines your ministry skills for the rest of your life, for all times and places. “I can” is a response to a moment in time. “I am able.” And why? Because there is an intersection of my time, the world’s time, and God’s time which points to my ability. Right here and right now. And I have to believe that. And so do you. That is the essence of pastoral ministry -- that there is a constant convergence of people, place, and purpose -- and you.

Trust this. Believe this, preachers.

So now, how to preach this text? You’ve probably already figured it out. Our parishioners need to hear that ableness when it comes discipleship is full of complexity and contextuality. They need to hear that ableness when it comes to following Jesus is not a pre-determined category but that which embodies, in all of human particularity, the ability to follow perceived in the moment.

But they also need to hear the vulnerability in that statement. And that their best intentions will not come to fruition.

Neither do ours. We try. We try desperately. But when it comes to following Jesus it seems that our failings seem all the more acute. Why is that? We fail constantly, if we are truthful. We fail at work, at parenting, at relationships, all situations that seem easier to admit our shortcomings than when it comes to living up to God’s expectations.

So, we need to stop it. Just stop it. Really. Why? So that we might claim anew, we are able. And we are. Why? Do you need me to answer this question? The Word, the Spirit, God’s commitment to you? All there. Really. Truly. Believe it.

Dear Working Preachers, here is a moment, if only to yourself, to admit when you are able, and when you are not. If discipleship is always certainty from the pulpit, from your pulpit, then your preaching is no more than statements of feigned and false faith, rather than an invitation to newness of belief.

Herein lies the promise of this passage from Mark -- the ability of ableness, if but only for a moment.

I will close with this new poem from Mary Oliver:

“I have refused to live locked in the orderly rooms of reasons and proofs
The world I live in and believe in is wider than that.
And anyway, what’s wrong with Maybe? 

You wouldn’t believe what once or twice I’ve seen.
I’ll just tell you this: only if there are angels in your head will you ever, possibly, see one.”

Karoline

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