Back to reality. Perhaps that’s what many of you might be feeling right now. Easter is over. Pentecost has past. Ordinary time settles in to its rather long season of normal. And, gearing up for the long green season as a preacher is no small feat, and is likely a major challenge of ministry. It’s one thing to sustain interest in church, in God, during contained periods like Advent, Epiphany, and Lent. It’s another thing altogether to maintain that kind of attention getting all the way to the end of November.
And, if you went to the Festival of Homiletics in Atlanta this past week, heading home after hearing at least a dozen sermons and the same amount of lectures, attending inspiring worship, and singing your heart out at Beer and Hymns with the Fleshpots of Egypt (the 2017 Festival is in San Antonio — see you then!), back to reality is your reality. When you hear the likes of Walter Brueggemann, Anna Carter Florence, Yvette Flunder, Raphael Warnock, and Otis Moss III, it’s not only difficult to return to normal — it’s more difficult still to believe you are anything but normal.
I suspect the disciples may have had a similar feeling in our Gospel lesson from Luke. Here they are, in Capernaum, after the Sermon on the Plain. Back to reality, they suppose. It would seem like just another healing story and it will be one of many to come. But the disciples can’t, and we can’t, overlook one simple yet profound phrase — “when he heard about Jesus.”
How did this centurion hear about Jesus? Hard to know, I suppose. The disciples haven’t really been out and about yet. Jesus has yet to send them (Luke 9:1-6; 10:1-17) on an official discipleship mission. Yet, the centurion heard about Jesus anyway — because such is the nature of the Holy Spirit.
That’s what we need to remember in ordinary time, back to normal time, back to reality time. That according to the church, ordinary, normal, and reality time is full of the Spirit — and so are you. We are in the season of Pentecost. Don’t forget that. Every single day presents a possible Spirit sighting, an opportunity for someone to hear about Jesus, either because of what we preach or because of how we live; a charge to our parishioners that their witness about Jesus matters, an invitation to sing to the Lord a new song (Psalm 96:1); a chance to remember how really and truly the Gospel of Jesus Christ changes lives and communities forever (Galatians 1:1-12).
The promise of the Spirit is what makes going back to ordinary, normal, reality time possible. Our reentry should be one of rejuvenation. We have Easter and the day of Pentecost behind us as promise. We have a preaching festival behind us as inspiration and affirmation, encouragement and hope, with the promise that people hear about Jesus because of your preaching.
This is what makes the church different. Our reentry into normal after moments of exhilaration and stimulation is never normal but is able to imagine and interpret normal through the promise of the Spirit. Your preaching should be different after Easter and Pentecost. Your preaching has to different after a week of amazing preaching, worship, workshops, and fellowship.
But, it’s not about different that assumes you will be better. No. Easter does not make us better preachers. Preaching conferences such as the Festival of Homiletics do not make us better preachers. Rather, the promise of Easter and the promise that preaching does make a difference? Well, we are then made more faithful preachers, attentive preachers. Preachers who are once again reminded that one of our primary callings is to help our listeners view the world through God’s eyes. To see the world as God wants it to be. To live life as God needs us to live so that the world might know God’s love. We are then made preachers willing to take risks, because no theological certainty will ever help you preach the truth of the resurrection. Preachers willing to be prophetic, because the world needs to hear the truth. Preachers willing to work for, and invite others into, the kingdom of God because, “it ain’t coming unless we bring it” (Yvette Flunder). Preachers who remember once again, because we need those reminders so very often, that “when he heard about Jesus” means some preaching and teaching just happened and needs to continue to happen.
On the last day of the Festival of Homiletics in my closing comments as emcee, I ended with a quote from Mary Oliver. Replace “poetry” with “preaching” and “poems” with “sermons” and I hope you will hear and know that back to reality is nothing ordinary or normal, but the greatest gift of all.
“Poetry is a life-cherishing force. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes indeed.”