Pulpit and Pew (installment 25)

Telling time is never easy. I don’t just mean how twice a year we adjust our clocks, or even how most of us work from several calendars simultaneously—school year, shopping days until Christmas, fiscal, Hallmark, family, work, and on the list goes.

I’m thinking specifically about the rhythms whereby Christianity tells time, the Christian year. The new year begins with the first Sunday of Advent, followed by Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide, Pentecost, Ordinary time, and finally Christ the King Sunday, at which point it starts all over again. Whenever I mention this calendar to my students in Introduction to Worship, everyone nods in agreement as if it were the most familiar thing in the world. “Oh yeah, we know that calendar. What else are we covering today?” But then I give them a short quiz, and it turns out, they don’t know it like they thought. If that’s true for seminarians, I suspect it could be true for many congregants, perhaps a few ministers as well.

Some of the questions I ask are trivial, like “What does the word Lent mean?” The answer surprises a lot of folks, “spring.” Or “Why are the Sundays after Pentecost called ordinary?” It’s not because of the long, dry stretch that spans the summer, you know, just plain old ordinary days. Perhaps you recall in math classes how there are cardinal and ordinal ways of counting. Cardinal means “one, two, three…” But ordinal means “first, second, third…” We measure ordinary time as “the first Sunday after Pentecost,” etc. There’s no such thing as ordinary as in plain, nothing happening. Christ is always showing up, even when the doors are locked, at least as John tells it in the 20th chapter of his Gospel.

One complicating factor this time of year is the difference between the Christian calendar and the way J C Penney and other retailers count time. We know all about how many shopping days are left, so I won’t belabor that. But there’s another difficulty as well. Advent (the term means “coming”) spans the four Sundays prior to Christmas and invites us to wait for the coming of the Christ. Churches don’t always seem clear on which coming of Christ we are anticipating, first or second. Some aspects of Advent stress one, some aspects the other. Some churches are sticklers for no Christmas hymns during Advent since it’s a season of waiting for the first coming; others don’t see any harm in belting out “Joy to the World” even in mid-December, especially since the birth of Christ happened two thousand years ago now.

I won’t try to settle that dispute. What is painfully clear, however, is that living between Christ’s first and second coming means that “peace on earth” happens even now in little installments and is yet to be fulfilled to the brim. If you have doubts about that first premise, look up the December 11 episode of 60 Minutes with its amazing feature about the guerrilla fighters in Colombia where drug lords and rampant murders have given way to healing in their nation. If you have doubts about the second premise, just watch pretty much every other news story any day of the year.

Have a blessed Advent, a Merry Christmas, and Maranatha (Come, Lord Jesus)!

Pulpit and Pew (Installment 24)

“Preaching is an oral/communal act.” That’s a line I repeat on occasion in classes at the seminary and quite frequently in workshops with pastors. I usually preface it by saying, “Now I realize this is not the most profound thing you’ll ever hear about preaching, but here it is: preaching is an oral/communal act.” In other words, preachers preach aloud (thus, the term oral) and they preach to people (thus, communal). I don’t know any preachers who proclaim the gospel without talking, although there is that great line by Francis of Assisi who said to preach the gospel and if necessary, use words, thereby signaling how proclamation is more than what happens on Sundays. But in pulpits, most preachers use words. I also don’t know any preachers who preach if no one shows up. This is the very nature of preaching, aloud and with others.

While it’s not a very profound statement, perhaps the implications are. Here’s what I mean. If preaching is an oral/communal thing, why do so many of us preachers prepare alone and in silence? It used to be a fairly common practice for ministers to tell secretaries to hold their calls while they bolted their doors shut and tried to crank out a sermon. Other than in the case of emergencies, the idea was to avoid distractions. Bibles and other books were cracked open, but silence and isolation reigned supreme.

No doubt, there is value in ministers being still, resisting the urge to check emails or Facebook, disciplining themselves to meditate, pray, and study on their way toward putting a sermon together. In his book, Discovering a Sermon, Robert Dykstra maintains that while boring people on Sundays is a cardinal sin, knowing how to be bored is a virtue, sitting still as they stay at the task. That’s true. But a good number of ministers are approaching the task differently these days.

David Lose, probably best known for starting the website Working Preacher, suggests in his latest book (Preaching at the Crossroads) that preachers should consider reviving a very old practice, actually visiting parishioners at their place of work. Set up a lunch date, he suggests, and meet them at their place of employment, asking questions about what they do and how it’s going. Some of us ministers could get a good education, I’m sure, and all the while developing relationships with parishioners. Oral and communal.

I’m also familiar with any number of ministers who now hang out at coffee shops and bistros while working on their sermons. Sociologists refer to these places as “third places,” coming after home and office. In a coffee shop, and I’m in one as I write, there are minimal interruptions and yet one is surrounded by people talking to each other. Note the oral and communal aspects of that.

Years ago my son’s first job was the early shift at Panera, including Sunday mornings. On the rare Sundays when I wasn’t preaching somewhere, I would drop by around 8:30 or so when he was scheduled for a break. One week he told me to go ahead without him, he would join me in a few minutes. That’s when the thirty-something couple with two toddlers in tow plopped down next to me, the husband and wife having an argument. He kept saying things about how “it” was for the family, for the kids. She kept saying that “it” was only for him. My head was buried in the book I was reading, but my ears were open. Finally, it became clear what “it” was. He wanted to join a country club, said it would be good family time. She didn’t believe that for a minute.

After some intense exchanges, she stormed out with the girls, leaving him there. Her last words: “I’m going to church, and I’m going to pray for your soul.” Whew! I have no idea how he got home. The next time I was in Panera on a Sunday morning, I saw them again, the husband wearing a sweatshirt with the name of a country club on it. I will leave it to you the reader to interpret this incident, but it’s hard to imagine the same dynamic unfolding while a minister reads from a commentary on Romans in the confines of the church. Preacher is an oral and communal event. That’s something to ponder.

Pulpit and Pew (Installment 23)

Let’s be clear, while there are a myriad of styles of preaching these days—everything from the traditional three-point sermon to creative narratives—there seem to be only two approaches in terms of what to preach on. I don’t mean the topic of sermons; those number in the myriads as well. I mean when it comes to selecting a biblical text for the message.

If you’re a preacher, this is not a news flash. You know this. But for those who listen to sermons this could be news to you. The two approaches are lectionary and topical series. The latter one is clear enough, usually somewhere between four to six weeks of sermons focused around a theme. Sometimes it’s based on a new book on the market, maybe Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark, something like that. The pastor, obviously moved by what she/he has read, feels inspired to use it as a kind of outline for the series. The preacher doesn’t copy the book, but uses it as inspiration for the series. The congregation might even be reading along during the week.

Or a series could be based on cultural trends: March Madness in college basketball inspiring a series on Jesus’ march to Jerusalem at the end of his life, a kind of madness; the race for the White House inspiring a series on running the Christian race with faithfulness, that sort of thing. Whatever kind of series, preachers have to come up with biblical texts for each Sunday.

The lectionary, on the other hand, is a scheduled list of biblical readings for each Sunday that spans a three-year cycle. The cycle is intended to mirror the three-year ministry of Jesus, and each year is devoted to one of the three synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (Yes, I know, there’s a fourth Gospel. It gets treated here and there all three years.) Preachers who use the lectionary don’t search for biblical texts the way series preachers do. Instead, they face four choices each week: an OT narrative, a Psalm, a Gospel reading, and an epistle reading from the NT. (There is, by the way, a new narrative lectionary that some churches are using.)

So while there are all sorts of topics for preaching and styles to consider, these two basic approaches hold sway. When I wrote my book The Fully Alive Preacher I confessed that I have two missions in mind on this topic: introducing the lectionary to those who only preach series and helping lectionary preachers consider another way. In other words, there are strengths and weaknesses associated with each.

For example, shortly after 9/11, when I shared my sermon title and text with the church where I would be preaching come Sunday, they politely told me, “We preach from the lectionary.” Period. As for series, I know a school teacher who recently said that the sermon series in her church feels more like a professional development day in the school district, nothing all that much biblical about it. Both of these examples could be extremes, but there are limitations to be sure.

Lately I’ve been pondering a third way, an old practice that seems to have gone out of fashion. The technical name is lectio continua, which is Latin for “continuous reading.” In other words, preaching through the books of the Bible. To be clear, I’m not picturing 27 weeks in Matthew or 42 weeks in Genesis. I sat through one of those for over a year when I was in college, my Bible falling open each week to the same book, and most of us in the congregation weary. We felt like the Israelites in the wilderness. No thanks.

But what if we preached four weeks of highlights from Philippians, six weeks of highlights from Exodus? In my mind, the biggest problem with lectionary and series preaching alike is how rarely the context of a passage is noted, although this is especially problematic with topical sermons with one verse from here and another from there. What if preachers helped the church see how different pieces of Scripture hold together, how those pieces interact with other books of the Bible too, which turns out to be a whole lot more nuanced than most folks imagine?

Supposedly more people can name the four Beatles correctly than the four Gospels. Ouch. If biblical illiteracy rates are as bad as some claim, perhaps a return to preaching the books of the Bible might be worth exploring.

Eating and Talking in Church, part 1

I suppose it would be easy to read this quote by Andrew McGowan about those earliest followers of Jesus while stifling a yawn: “Christians met for meals.”[i] It hardly seems a striking observation, in no way earth shattering. Except when you stop to think about it, this is startling news indeed, that when those first followers of Jesus got together for what we now call “worship” or “church,” they did so to eat. They didn’t file into wooden rows of pews or folding chairs to sit still and listen to a sermon, or the choir, or any of the things we might conjure in our minds today. McGowan’s insight is truly profound, “Christians met for meals.” Today congregations might gather for a social meal in the fellowship hall every once in a while, but this was their normal way of gathering, and the main reason. After dinner they had conversations over wine on a host of topics, including stories about their daily lives as well as stories about Jesus. In other words, a time at the table followed by a talk, which sounds like two things, except the talking took place at table too. Table talk.[ii] Today it is common for Christians to gather for a talk called sermon and a meal called Communion, but oh how things have changed.

This book looks at those early meals that Jesus’ followers ate, seeking answers to a host of questions, including things such as: What exactly was an “upper room?” We hear that term tossed about, but what does it mean? Who was invited to these gatherings? How many people were typically present? Besides bread and wine, what did they eat? How was their eating different from others in the Mediterranean world? How was it the same? How exactly did they do church together? But the questions we will explore are not just rooted in the past because ultimately we will want to think about what their dining practices might say about the way we eat and gather as church now.

* * * * * *

One Christmas break when our grown children were home for the holidays, they spent their time doing all the usual stuff: napping, playing video games, reading, watching movies, cooking, just hanging out. Whenever I could find the time, I spent my holidays reading books about ancient Greco-Roman banqueting, the kinds of meals that those earliest followers of Jesus inherited and which greatly impacted how they ate a meal in Jesus’ name. Every once in a while I would exclaim, “Oh, my God, this is so interesting. Listen to this.” They would pause whatever it was they were doing, and I would share some insight, only to be met with puzzled looks. They were not impressed with my findings. They suspected their dad was some sort of nerd.

To such a charge I plead innocent, my evidence coming in the form of another story. After our granddaughter Emma was born, we naturally made several trips to Orlando, including one fall while I was on sabbatical working on this book. One afternoon I went out to play some golf and got paired up with a couple of fellows I didn’t know, Bob and Les. About thirty minutes into the round the small talk turned to what we do for a living. The conversation went something like this:

“Yeah, we’re both retired now. What about you?”

“Me, I’m a seminary professor. I teach people preparing for ministry.”

“Really? Les and I go to a church not far from here. Seminary professor, that’s so cool.”

(This is not the essence of my defense, that they thought I was cool. The conversation continued.)

“So how come you’re not back in Kansas City teaching?”

“Oh, I’m on a research leave, working on a book about how the earliest followers of Jesus ate together and what that might mean when churches eat in remembrance of him now.”

“How churches eat, huh? You mean Communion?”

“I was just going to ask you what you call it at your church since different traditions use different names.”

“Yeah, we call it Communion. Although we don’t do it very often, every couple of months, something like that.”

“And when you do, what’s it like? How would you describe it?”

Bob thought for a moment. “How would I describe it?” Clearly the question had never occurred to him before. He looked at his buddy, both shrugging their shoulders. He said, “I don’t know, a holy time. A quiet time.”

Long pause.

Les chimed in, “Kind of like a funeral. Well, not exactly, but you get the idea. Respectful? Serious?”

I told them that sounded familiar, and then shared what I had discovered in my research, an insight that blew my mind when I first discovered it and still does. I said, “The meals of those first followers of Jesus were not the least bit like funerals, more like festive dinner parties.” And that’s when one of my new golf buddies in Florida said, “My God, that would be amazing. I can’t quite picture it, but a festive dinner party as church. That would be…different.”

[i] Andrew B. McGowan, Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 19.

[ii] Some readers will recognize this as the title of a book by the sixteenth century reformer Martin Luther, a collection of sayings he shared over food and drink. What I have in mind is inspired by a much older work, Plutarch’s first century reflections on dinner parties.

(This material is part of a forthcoming book and is copyrighted by Mike Graves.)

Pulpit and Pew (Installment 22)

On more than one occasion I’ve had students share a complaint that came from parishioners about their preaching. (To be clear, whenever parishioners complain to me about a former student’s preaching abilities, I typically remind them I’m just the teacher; I can’t be responsible for what they do. If, however, parishioners brag about a former student’s preaching, I’m happy to take credit. “Yes, I taught her in seminary. Thank you very much.” It’s a convenient arrangement, don’t you think.)

One of the most common complaints is about the lack of “biblical preaching.” They note how the previous pastor preached from the Bible, was more biblical. I never know what to make of such comments. My mind races in lots of directions. Some people mistakenly think that biblical sermons are the ones that cram in as many scripture references as humanly possible. A sermon that started out in Philippians ends up with verses from nearly every book in the Bible, except maybe Esther and Revelation. That’s not biblical preaching at all, but more of a concordance approach. For those who don’t know, a concordance is a reference book in which you can look up a word to discover all the places it’s found in the Bible. But when Paul wrote to the church at Philippi about joy, he didn’t really have all those other passages in mind. Sermons that jump around the whole Bible, and this is common with topical preaching in particular, often are a hot mess of scattered ideas. Something similar happens when a story from one Gospel account gets mixed together with other versions of the story, resulting in a Gospel smoothie. But Luke doesn’t need help from Mark, or whatever the case might be.

Or I think about the people who use the adjective biblical to describe the depth of explanation the preacher includes. I remember a fellow pastor borrowing one of my Greek commentaries years ago because he was preaching through one of Paul’s letters and couldn’t figure out when the apostle says we are “in Jesus Christ,” if the preposition there should be translated as locative of sphere or instrumental of means. Those are grammatical issues in the Greek, over which no one has ever lost any sleep, near as I can tell. I felt so sorry for the congregation that was going to suffer through that sermon. That’s not biblical preaching either.

I finally realized that when students hear complaints about how their preaching isn’t biblical, they needed to ask for clarification. That’s what I do these days. If someone decries their pastor’s preaching as not biblical, I ask them, “What exactly do you mean? What is biblical preaching in your mind?” Such an exchange can open up a more fruitful discussion in my experience.

When it does, I usually share my own understanding of biblical preaching. It’s a sermon in which the idea for the message arises from a passage of Scripture but doesn’t stop there. That idea, that biblical idea, then enters into conversation with our lives today. If you’re going to be a contestant on the game show Jeopardy, biblical trivia might be helpful. But short of that, most folks aren’t better off naming the twelve tribes of Israel or the cities Paul visited on the second of his three missionary journeys. The idea of biblical preaching is to discover a word that still speaks.

I know some churchgoers who think it’s a shame we don’t live in the first century, don’t get to follow Jesus around as he cares for the poor, heals the lame, sets prisoners free. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to have been there, walked the Galilee with him. But Jesus isn’t dead, and those things still happen through the work of his Spirit and the Church, in places like Haiti and even Lee’s Summit. Biblical preaching isn’t exclusively about the past or the present, but a wonderful and incredibly complex blending of the two. And when ministers do that well, regardless of who taught them, that is cause to celebrate.

Pulpit and Pew (Installment 21)

I’m sure you’ve noticed how Scripture readings in worship are usually not all that long. Eight verses one week from the middle of Mark’s Gospel, and five verses the next week from Exodus. Even readings from the Psalms are often only a portion, six verses or so. When you think about it, this is an odd practice in a way. Years ago theologian Edward Farley wrote an essay about how we isolate little chunks of Scripture, confident that in doing so there must be a word of gospel, that is, good news. Among other things, he wondered how it was that Christianity went from preaching the good news to preaching pieces of the Bible.

I’ve been thinking lately about another aspect of this practice, how we only read a snippet, which we often isolate from its context. I had a pastor who used to preface readings by at least setting the scene, a kind of “Here’s what Paul has been talking about in the previous two chapters, so listen for a different emphasis as we pick it up in the first eight verses of this chapter.” That helps for sure. I have on occasion tried to drive my point home with students at the seminary by bringing with me a copy of a novel, usually something like To Kill a Mockingbird or The Grapes of Wrath, something they read in school or were supposed to anyway. That seems analogous to me with readings from the Bible, a kind of vague familiarity. I turn to chapter three in the novel and read the sixteenth line down, Mockingbird 3:16, you might say. It makes no sense whatsoever, or not much.

This year for Easter instead of preaching only the first twelve verses of Luke’s resurrection story, I preached the whole twenty-fourth chapter, and pieces of Acts as well since that’s the sequel. It’s a long passage to read, so we broke it up into three scenes and had different readers take turns. The story of the “road to Emmaus,” as we usually call it, does begin with the phrase, “Now on that same day,” so this made good sense to me. And it’s the same for other parts of that same chapter; the writer of Luke assumes we’re reading the whole thing in one sitting. I remember years ago in a church where I served doing something similar by preaching through the Bible, one book each week.

In a few weeks I’m preaching at a church in the Kansas City area for an anniversary celebration, and when I met with the ministers I said I plan to preach the book of Acts. Not a piece of Acts, but the book of Acts. Obviously I won’t touch on every aspect and obviously we won’t read all of it either, but maybe we will at least get a sense of its overall flow, how the Jesus story continues on in the fledgling early church. I’m pretty sure that the writer of Luke, like Harper Lee and John Steinbeck, would appreciate it.

Pulpit and Pew (Installment 20)

I did not see this coming, where the book I’ve been working on about early Communion practices has taken me. As I have noted before in this series of essays, I discovered four traits of those early meal gatherings (a full meal as part of a full evening that promoted intimacy, a mostly inclusive gathering compared to other banqueting clubs in the first century, a festive dinner party as opposed to the funeral-like observances we have nowadays, and a lively conversation with give-and-take instead of the monologues so common today). Those things are challenges to the way we eat the Jesus meal in our day, challenges I saw coming early on.

But what I did not see coming was the way my research would challenge the way we worship on Sundays when we gather. Hold on to your hats because this is radical. Those early Eucharistic banquets weren’t self-centered but neither were they primarily God-centered; it was more community-centered. In a phrase, more about fellowship than worship. In his classic book Paul’s Idea of Community, Robert Banks observes how Paul’s failure to say anything about a person going to church to worship is, “One of the most puzzling features of Paul’s understanding” of church altogether. Worship is how life is lived (Romans 12:1-2), whereas first century gatherings were all about the community of people there.

Those first century ancestors of ours didn’t have dinner together, fellowshipping and such, only to re-orient themselves toward God as they moved into the second part of the evening. “Ok, if you’ll finish your meal, we’re moving into a time of worship. Leave your wine glasses here.” No, nothing like that. The whole evening was oriented toward enjoying each other’s company, building each other up, promoting unity. All of this, as with all of life, was done in the presence of God. Obviously things have changed. This kind of community orientation is now common among small groups, but not so much in our larger worship gatherings.

In her new book Grounded, Diana Butler Bass describes the traditional way of doing worship as “vertical theology,” the church serving as a kind of elevator, taking people up into the presence of God who sits in the heavens. Bass notes that cultural shifts seem to be leading toward a more horizontal way of thinking, with a stress on God’s presence among us, even in creation. Here’s one way to think about the difference between worship as we know it and horizontal gatherings. Traditionally we have oriented ourselves toward God while gathered in the presence of others, whereas in a horizontal gathering we orient ourselves toward our brothers and sisters in Christ while in the presence of God.

Or to return to Diana Butler Bass’s image, instead of thinking of the church as elevator, maybe a table would be more helpful. Rather than bemoan, “the sky is falling” when it comes to the state of Christianity, we could be encouraged that focusing on the horizon may actually bring us closer to God, and to one another. This shift from vertical to more horizontal is something our churches will need to rethink in whatever future we shape together.