Community and Connections

Joining the Community(Creative Commons Image by Susanne Nilsson on Flickr)

Dear Working Preachers,

I am actually preaching this week. How about that? On this week’s text from Matthew this coming Friday in the Luther Seminary chapel. You are probably thinking, “Yeah, so what? So am I, Karoline, just on Sunday instead of Friday, and by the way, I preach every week.” I am sharing this with you because one thing that worries me about being a homiletics professor is that you don’t get to preach much. Ironic, isn’t it? But maybe more truthfully, problematic. I teach preaching, I podcast about preaching, I write about preaching to you, and yet I rarely get to preach. For those of you who listen to Sermon Brainwave, I can’t tell you how much that makes a difference for me. At least I get a chance to think about the texts every week. At least they are in front of me every week. I have to wrestle with them every week whether I like it or not. Otherwise, my vocation seems a bit vacuous and self-serving.

I am preaching for our first Cohort Day at Luther Seminary in conjunction with our new curriculum, a curriculum that takes seriously and puts at the center, our students — their backgrounds, their learning goals, their specific vocational interests. It asks them to be responsible and accountable for their own learning and their own sense of their areas of theological and pastoral growth. As faculty, therefore, our role is not simply to instruct, to deposit our wealth of knowledge into their brains and hope for the best. Rather, we are called to accompany them, learn from them, and imagine pedagogically reciprocal relationships. So much of this also describes the relationship between preacher and parish. The theme for our first Cohort Day is “Community and Connections,” and wow, does this text from Matthew have everything to do with community and connections. For many of you, this could be a great theme for your Rally Sunday sermon, as your congregational community comes back together and reconnects for another year of living together in faith.

And community and connections are all about truth-telling and reconciliation.

Community and connections demand both accountability and autonomy, both responsibility and individuality, both answerability and self-identity. Articulate it for yourself as a preacher, which can then be translated for your congregation. To name only a few things, as preachers we are accountable to Scripture. The way in which it challenges us, what it does to us, how it talks back to us. We are responsible for the very real needs of our congregations — their joys and their sorrows, but particularly what they need to hear each Sunday morning, whether it be a word of comfort or reproach, of grace or instruction, or of course, often both. This may mean that we preach a word we don’t want to hear or don’t even need. We are answerable to our denominational confessions, the wider church, and the truths of justice.

At the same time, your autonomy, individuality, and self-identity are all on the table. This is the really hard thing about living in community, isn’t it? That constant negotiation between who you are and who you have to or need to be with others. This is not a balancing act. None of us can maintain an exact measure of sovereignty and being in relationship every day. But it does take tending. Daily. I think this is especially true when it comes to your own self. Call it a hazard of the job, spending so much time being present for others, caring for others, loving others that you forget to be present for, care for, and love yourself, losing yourself in the process.

Here’s the thing. Your church, your people, your congregation, your parishioners, are counting on you to be you. No one wants a fake preacher in the pulpit. And believe me, they can tell. Right away. They absolutely sense the disconnect between what they experience in the coffee hour, in Bible study, in a staff meeting, and what they hear in the pulpit.

To paraphrase Matthew’s Jesus, do you have those around you who will tell you when they see parts of you slipping away? (Emily Townes). If you don’t, you need to figure it out. What if this week you identify that person or persons that will tell you, in all truth, that you as you are being usurped by you as preacher. That is, somehow your role as preacher has pushed aside your reality as person. That you as you are being coopted by multi-tasking, by being everything to everyone, that you are spread too thin. That you as you are barely recognizable compared to the one whom God first saw, believed in, touched, and called. All of this will be hard to hear. In the words of Gloria Steinem, “The truth will set you free. But first, it will really piss you off.” Jesus suggests we should also be the same truth for others. Not with judgment or fear or a sense of betrayal, but from a place of kindness and love.

The thing is, Jesus’ observations about how to live as a community of faith are not just important for us, they are also at stake for God. What about how we live in community is a reflection of who God is, the character of God, what’s important to God? This passage tells us the truth about the dynamics of living in community, but it also reveals the very nature of God. God cares about you but also how God needs you to be with others. God knows God’s own autonomy, but somehow cannot seem to exist without loving us. God certainly maintains God’s own self-determination but when God entered into relationship with us and then chose to be human, well then, God made a radical commitment to dependence and belonging.

There’s no going back. Not for God. Not for us.