If you buy coffee at Starbucks with any frequency, you know that on the cups is a series of quotes called “The Way I See It.” How many of these opinions are in circulation would be hard to determine, but several weeks ago my venti latte featured number 230.
The quote came from Joel Stein, columnist for the Los AngelesTimes: “Heaven is totally overrated. It seems boring. Clouds, listening to people play the harp. It should be somewhere you can’t wait to go, like a luxury hotel. Maybe blue skies and soft music were enough to keep people in line in the seventeenth century, but Heaven has to step it up a bit. They’re basically getting by because they only have to be better than Hell.”
In many ways, this is a good reminder for our preaching during the season of Pentecost, that is, “to step it up a bit.” During this “ordinary” time, we do need to take it up a notch. Why? Because much of our preaching in Pentecost is basically getting by, passing time through the summer months as parishioners vacation, formally or from church. So, how much better than hell do we have to be? Is it necessary for us to put a lot of energy into our preaching when there are few to hear it anyway? And when Rally Sunday comes, fall programming kicks into high gear, and autumn holidays arrive, is our preaching something people can’t wait to hear? How do we make ordinary time extraordinary?
Another hurdle is the selection of pericopes themselves. From Matthew’s Jesus we hear some of the most familiar of Jesus’ sayings: the wise man and the foolish man (7:21-29); the hairs on our head being numbered (10:24-39); my yoke is easy and my burden is light (11:25-30); the parable of the sower (13:1-9); the weeds among the wheat (13:24-30); the Kingdom of Heaven parables–the mustard seed, the treasure in the field, the pearl of great value (13:31-33, 44-52); the parables of the unforgiving servant (18:21-35), the workers in the vineyard (20:1-16), the vineyard and the tenants (21:33-46), the marriage feast (22:1-14), the ten maidens (25:1-13), and the talents (25:14-30). How do we make these well-known words NOT boring and overrated?
A first strategy would be to remember that this is the season of Pentecost in Year A. Therefore, we should situate these stories solidly in the Gospel of Matthew and the First Evangelist’s remarkable portrait of Jesus. This is Jesus the Great Teacher, the Davidic Messiah, by whom kings are threatened and to whom astrologers from the east bring gifts. This is Immanuel, God with us, who teaches and preaches from the mountaintop. This is the Son of God, at whose death the earth shook, the rocks were torn apart, and the tombs opened, releasing the bodies of the saints into the city streets. Finally, this is the resurrected Christ, who commissions us, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:19-20). This is Jesus the Christ, according to Matthew, Jesus the Christ who should be behind the words we hear and preach every Sunday.
In a related manner, a second strategy would be to consider how ordinary time means for this Gospel. That is, to pay attention to how Matthew tells his story. This means reading for the details that Matthew includes, even in the stories we think we know so well and especially if they find their parallels in the other Gospels. This means believing that how Matthew relates the events and sayings of Jesus contributes to their meaning just as much as what is being said. This means trusting that the smallest of seeds can and will yield God’s kingdom for the faithful. Why is this important for preaching in the season of Pentecost? Because you never know when an ordinary detail will yield an extraordinary encounter with the living Word of God.
A third strategy for preaching within the season of Pentecost is to reintegrate these stories and sayings of Jesus back into the season that celebrates the gift of the spirit, the birth of the church, and the growth of faith. Part of what is extraordinary about these texts is that we are asked to participate in the extraordinary. We are given the gift of the Spirit that lays claim on our identity and purpose. We are commissioned to envision God’s kingdom on earth in everything that the church does. We are called to a life of faith that is no mediocre, ordinary life, but that is set apart by extraordinary living, for the sake of “all nations” and “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (28:19).