Craft of Preaching

Dear Working Preacher

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

The Laborers Are Few

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"Healing," Image by Arthur Davison via Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


“Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” What would the world look like if the primary ways by which we imagined how to follow Jesus were these four imperatives? This question alone would yield a sermon worth hearing and worth living. Distilled, it seems that two acts of discipleship according to Matthew are critical: healing and liberation.[1]

Healing and liberation should not sound new to the disciples. They also function as a summation of Matthew’s Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount, from which all discourse on discipleship originates. Discipleship that is not demonstrative of these two essential marks of the Kingdom of Heaven is not discipleship from a Matthean perspective. This is critical for the disciples to remember at this point in time -- participation in bringing about the Kingdom of Heaven must bare the meaning of Emmanuel. God’s presence heralds healing and liberation at hand. Discipleship that does not pass this litmus test may not hold up to Matthew’s expectations of and standards for discipleship.

We might want to consider whether or not these two principles are recognizable in how we go about living our lives, how we do church, and how we lead. I don’t know about you, but the kind of leadership I have observed lately, leadership that is supposed to have the common good in mind, leadership that professes to uphold the well-being and emancipation of all? Well, healing and liberation are virtually undetectable.

Of course, one might say that secular leadership is not beholden to such values. I will grant that argument, but only if said leadership does not say that it does. And, leadership in the church is most certainly bound to these principles, or at least ones that are identifiable as biblical or theological. Pretense has no place in the church.

If not these values, then what? Is there anything about how we lead that when observed actually resembles Jesus’ words about what it means to follow him? Or do our actions, rather, represent bland belief, vaguely recognizable as Christian, but impossible to name precisely? If so, we don’t just live a performative contradiction -- we disclose a lukewarm faith at best, unwilling to or incapable of giving witness to what we truly believe. And when authenticity as a leader starts to unravel, so does basic trust, even trust in the words you preach.

In other words, we could also take a step backwards, consider a balcony view of Jesus’ instructions, and inquire, if not healing and liberation, what two behaviors are decisive for your leadership? It’s a question worth asking yourself. When was the last time you considered what is truly theologically at stake for how you lead your church?

I think for most of us, while these default positions may be at work, we do not often reflect on how and in what ways they actually make a difference for our determinations and decisions. Maybe this is the week, or maybe this is the summer, when you dedicate reflection on and evaluation of what two theological tenets are operative for your ministry. Can you articulate them? Can your parishioners name them? If not, they may not be functioning as you assumed -- or, they may not be there at all.

It’s also a question worth asking in a sermon. What theological commitments are at the heart of your discipleship? We all have operating principles by which we embody our faith.

These embedded beliefs represent a coalescence of multiple factions that have contributed over the years to our theological imagination. But I suspect that often we don’t hold them very close to the surface of our lives. They are somewhere in there, deep inside, but the truth is we don’t depend on them very often or we take them for granted. We move about in the world with an unconsciousness about what’s theologically important for us until we are forced to confess the truth -- if what we believe about Jesus actually matters for how we live our lives.

Does it? And just how? All kinds of decisions are made -- in our daily lives, in our churches, in our systems, and in our governments with general references to Jesus, allusions to the Bible, or nods to denominational commitments as if a religious mention is the same as having faith-based principles.

A gesture here and there to God, a well-placed or choreographed citation of Scripture at a well-appointed time? Neither is the same as holding yourself accountable to foundational theological creeds. Hypocrisy, especially in the church, will persist as long as the church’s leaders and the church’s preachers continue to convince themselves that character does not also divulge theology. An understanding and awareness of one’s theological commitments will guard against the ubiquitous duplicity of our times.

Healing and liberation, therefore, is a good place to start.

Karoline

 

[1] Many thanks to Greg Carey and his excellent commentary from 2008 who suggests that healing and liberation summarize Jesus’ instructions to his disciples. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=98.

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