Craft of Preaching

Dear Working Preacher

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

God's Pro Quo

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My first reaction to the Gospel lesson this week was a movie memory: a scene from Silence of the Lambs, when Hannibal Lecter (the brilliant Anthony Hopkins) says to Clarice, “quid pro quo” -- this for that, something for something. Hannibal has shared with Agent Starling, played by the incredible Jodie Foster, potentially important information about the perpetrator she is trying to catch, Buffalo Bill. But in exchange for clues that might lead to the arrest of this criminal, Hannibal wants to know some rather intimate details about Clarice’s life.

While you may not want to use this example in your sermon Sunday (it’s a rather disturbing movie), if ever there was a moment that exposed the fallacy of quid pro quo, this scene should do it.

The problem with quid pro quo, one of many, is that it is not as fairly matched as one would assume. That was certainly the case for Clarice -- to allow a psychopathic cannibal into the private and personal aspects of your life is not an even level of trade. Clarice gives up much more than the worth of the hints toward the possible apprehension of the serial killer. It is not a flat exchange. And yet, it seems our world is set up to expect an equal swap rate in negotiating relationships.

And then here comes Jesus, who basically says, “yeah, that whole quid pro quo thing? That’s not going to fly in the Kingdom of God.”

“And why?” We might ask Jesus. “Well, let me tell you why,” says Jesus. The problem with a quid pro quo mentality is quantification. How do you measure or calculate repayment of love, of mercy? And the fact that we think we can is a rather striking theological problem. We tend to forget that our beliefs about faith and discipleship are also claims about who we think God is. If we insist that our faith, our salvation, is dependent upon an equal rate of exchange between God and us, then we need to ask ourselves, in what kind of God do we believe? What happens if we don’t measure up? And what makes us think we can assume certain systems to quantify the grace of God?

I think this is one of the most poignant and perilous aspects of ministry -- that a quantification of our work might actually be the result of some sort of equivalency of effort: higher attendance, thriving programs, more money in the offering plates.

So we work more and more, the proverbial 24/7 mentality, with the expectation that the church pews will be full, Sunday school will be busting at the seams, and our preaching will change every single life present on a Sunday morning.

And what is the result? We measure our worth based on models of outside evaluations and expectations rather than our inside and intrinsic incarnational presence and power.

But even worse? We then run the risk of preaching and teaching that faith is contractual. That relationship with God is dependent on a nearsighted notion that God works within the world’s insistence on agreements and bargains; transferences and contingencies; a quid pro quo relationship rather than a relationship made possible by the unmerited, unearned, unwarranted, undeserved love of God.

This story calls out our propensity toward transactional faith. We expect God to move about in our economies that are dependent on proof of worth and jobs well done. We assume God will choose to maintain a relationship with us based on our ministry performance. But then we forget a key theological premise of Luke - God’s measure of membership in the Kingdom has everything to do with how God sees us and not how we see ourselves.

When you live and do ministry in a quid pro quo world, it’s difficult to imagine how church can be anything else. But, Dear Working Preachers, you must imagine something different, not only for the sake of the future of the church, but for the sake of your very own survival in ministry. Ministry should not be about survival. If it is, you have bought into the quid pro quo quotient. No. Ministry should be about life – a thriving, joyful life, for your parishioners, and for you. Why? Because that is the very essence of God – to give and grant life.

This means naming when people try to justify the activity of faith on the same terms as that which society assumes validation and verification. How we quantify actions of faith and from faith, how we adjudicate the work of the Kingdom of God, cannot be held to the same systems of assurance as that of the world’s adjudication of value. Acts of discipleship are not a means to an end. They are a means toward God’s end of growing the Kingdom of God in our midst here and now.

If your ministry is a constant state of not measuring up in your mind -- let’s talk. If your preaching is a perceived persistently failed performance because it has not changed lives on the spot -- let’s talk. If your sense of call seems to be unending failed attempts at who you know yourself to be -- let’s talk. Our quid pro quo world has seeped into our ministry and taken hold, but together, we can reevaluate and insist -- first to ourselves, then to those we accompany in a life of faith -- that God’s expectations are not in exchange for God’s love, but only so that we might more fully live the lives God so desires for us and envisions for us -- for you.

Karoline

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