If you’re like me, words matter.
One reason is that we who are preachers feel somehow called to proclaim this good news about Jesus Christ week after week, even if it means most of our parish time is spent sitting through too-long council meetings dragged out by impassioned discussions about how to get the urine smell out of the men’s bathroom in the basement or driving vans full of punchy and exhausted yet still-singing 7th graders home from church camps.
There’s still enough denial that convinces you that despite the absurd and ridiculous happenings that make up life in the parish, you’re still preaching, still baptizing, still invited into the most beautiful and difficult times of your parishioner’s lives. There’s the theologically geekiness of it all too: we trust that God’s Holy Word is born upon our scanty, skimpy little words. So, we keep going even with the buzz coming down from upper management is that people are fleeing church pews.
Meanwhile in the world, there’s This American Life,
which is more often than not the most downloaded podcast in our country and instead of the church pew has arguably become the biggest public sphere for the spoken word. Sure, Ira Glass has that great resonance to his voice which makes it all very easy to listen to, but as I was driving along the highway and listening to a show about whether break-up songs really help heal a broken heart, I thought “Man, this is life stuff.”
We could be doing this from our pulpits. What is so stunning to me is that this is just plain ol’ radio, no visuals, just words written for the ear. Just stories of heartache and prisoners who put together Hamlet plays and people who fear falling asleep and troubles with babysitters and yes, prayer: life. The life that we live and the lives of the people in the bible.
We can do this, I thought. We can make our words work and tell the story of Jesus Christ in a compelling way. If they can do it, so can we. It’s possible. We don’t need any magic tricks or monkey acts, forget the cheerleading squad that’s waiting behind the wings. We don’t need anything really, nope, not even technology. All we need is those very human, very real, very compelling stories of the Bible. But really, the Bible has everything, all the heartache you could hope for, all the mystery, all the family dysfunction, all the humor and yes, even the sex. We can do this. We can simply tell the story, and tell the story well.
And so, it is heartbreaking in that awful ironic way that these stories from our Bible feel like words of burden to so many outside the church. It’s not that people don’t long to hear story, it’s not that they can’t hear and understand a well-turned phrase, it’s just that it’s not happening all that often in our churches. How we worship, what we call church, will always morph through history, adapting itself to the culture, language, and traditions of particular human communities. But what cannot change, what must always be, in whatever way we emerge or manifest, is what is core to all of us: this story of the gracious work of God in Jesus Christ that continues to this day through the Holy Spirit.
Of course, as a preacher my hope is that each of us will find him- or herself with their heart a little fractured by Christ’s grace, by this word, even a little bit. And what ends up coming through is an unyielding disclosure; an awareness that in this broken world, each one of us is needed and each one of us is loved. We have this great story given to us in this life as gift. It is a story solidly entrenched in promise and it is a story which never ends for we will not be forgotten. Christ’s love, this love so strong, that death shrugs and sulks off in the face of it. Through this word, the bird and the burdens, the roses and the lily rise, demarcations fade, faith is given and all the living and the dead must speak. It is ours to preach, this Bible life.