Dear Working Preacher,
Let’s be honest with each other: something isn’t working. Something in our preaching, or our leadership, or more generally in the way we do church. I suspect you know what I mean. If you’ve given statistics about church attendance and membership even the briefest of glances in the past, say, quarter century, you know that most of the denominations we represent and serve are in decline.
A few weeks ago, I mentioned some of the “happiness research” that overlaps to suggest two things that pretty much everyone needs: 1) a sense of belonging and 2) a sense of purpose. So here’s what’s hard to figure: we’ve got this great story that offers people precisely these two things — an invitation to belong and to make a difference. That’s essentially what the Reformation doctrines of justification and vocation are: the promise that we are included and belong to the discipleship community of forgiven sinners and the corresponding promise that God desires to use each of us wherever we may be to make a difference in the world. So what’s gone wrong?
I have some hunches about all this that I’ll share over the next few months in these letters to you, but for now let me say one thing that I don’t think is causing the problem and one thing I think we can do about it.
First, it’s not that you’re not working hard enough. Let me say that again: it’s not that you aren’t working hard enough. That bears repeating because I know so many preachers who have seen the church decline on their watch and so live with an inordinate — if often unspoken — measure of guilt. Yet I spend a lot of time with ministers and I know that you all are some of the hardest working people in the world. In fact, I take the evidence that so many talented people are working so hard to apparently diminishing returns to indicate that we’re laboring under a false, or at least changed, paradigm. What we learned in seminary — and what has guided much of our ministry — simply doesn’t reflect the changed context in which we live. It’s not that it was wrong, it’s that it’s no longer right, or at least no longer adequate. More about this in future letters. For now, let me point to one thing in this week’s gospel that I think can help to reorient us to effective and faithful gospel proclamation.
This passage serves as the hinge of Luke’s gospel. Jesus has concluded his Galilean ministry and now embarks on his journey to Jerusalem. He was rejected by his hometown at the start of the time in Galilee. Now he is rejected by this Samaritan village as he turns to Jerusalem. Truly, the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. Yet Jesus is not troubled by this; indeed, it matches the restless purposefulness of his journey. He needs to be about his mission, his rendezvous with destiny in Jerusalem, city of destiny. And so he sets his face and there is no dissuading or distracting him.
Little of Luke’s account of the journey to Jerusalem matches his source material from Mark. Though he will pick up again with Mark’s account of Palm Sunday and the passion, for now Luke relies on sayings of Jesus from Q and from his own material. Why? Because Luke is interested in discipleship — on building the faith of his hearers and confirming them in the truth in which they have been instructed (Luke 1:4). What better guide than to do the same with postmodern hearers who have heard but hardly can be said to know or believe the story? So we listen to Luke’s account of the road to Jerusalem knowing that what Jesus reveals to his disciples and would-be disciples alike he also declares to us. And what does he say?
That this gospel, this coming new kingdom of God, matters. In fact, there is nothing more important. Jesus isn’t being callous in refusing the request of one to bury his parents, nor is he being belittling or sarcastic in responding to the request of another to bid friends and family farewell. It’s just that what’s coming — the unfolding revelation of God’s unexpected grace and mercy — is more important than any of these things. God is doing a new thing, and Jesus doesn’t want them — or us — to miss it.
So pay attention to the parables and teaching we will hear this summer and fall, for through them Jesus introduces us to a new kingdom, a new way of being in the world, a new way to look at God, ourselves, and each other. Some of these passages are old favorites that we need to hear again for the first time; others are unfamiliar and need to be opened up that we can hear and be affected by them; while others still are challenging, even upsetting and need to be wrestled to the ground before they will bless us. Whatever the particular passage, however, keep in mind the urgency Jesus embodies in this scene, for it is the key to Luke’s story. What Jesus says and does matters. The God Jesus introduces us to — a God who seeks the lost and tends the broken, a God who puts mercy ahead of law and compassion before custom, a God who forgives sinners and welcomes all people to table — this God is never what we or even more the world expects, yet is just the kind of God we desperately need. For this God, in turn, is also desperate…to meet us, to embrace us, to redeem us.
What you do matters, Working Preacher. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. What you do matters…because what Jesus did matters! We are bearers of this story, tenders of this tale, commissioned to speak it into the lives of our people that they may hear the word and come to faith once again. So the one thing I would invite us to consider as we assess our ministry and mission in this changed and changing world is whether we proclaim the gospel with the urgency demonstrated by Jesus in this passage. Is our passion transparent? Do folks recognize that we believe what we have been authorized to say is so incredibly important? Can our hearers feel the urgency in our voice as we proclaim to them a message that leads them to new life in Christ? I hope so. I believe so. I know that I also, as a hearer of the Word, need it to be so. Thanks for making it so in your life, ministry, and preaching.
Yours in Christ,