Proclaiming the gospel calls for intimacy and determination, preachers say

April 19, 2010

Two preachers from different generations called participants in the Preaching Jesus conference here to consider the profound effects that preaching can and should have on them and on their listeners.

Lauren Winner, an assistant professor of Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School and author of a number of books including "Girl Meets God," told the participants during an opening presentation April 19 that sermon preparation "can be and is and actually should be a vital part of the spiritual lives of those of us who preach."

The Rev. Martin Smith, author and senior associate rector at St. Columba's Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., said in the first of his two sessions April 20 that preaching is much like spiritual direction in which people are invited to prayerfully consider who they want Jesus to be for them and who Jesus wants to be for them. The questions, he said, echo Jesus' inquiry of blind Bartimeus: "What do you want me to do for you?"

Preaching Jesus, believed to be the first-ever national Episcopal Church preaching conference, is sponsored by the Episcopal Preaching Foundation and the Kanuga Conference Center. About 115 clergy and seminarians, including some from other denominations, are participating.

The April 19-22 gathering features a mix of lectures, small preaching groups, worship and fellowship. The preaching groups, led by faculty of the foundation's annual Preaching Excellence Program, are meant to allow participants to offer their sermons for feedback and critique.

"This is not just sit and listen," the Rev. Dr. William Brosend, homiletics professor at the University of the South's School of Theology and an EPF director, told participants during the opening session of the conference on the evening of April 19. "This is give and take. This is you learn by doing [and] getting feedback from your peers."

Winner, who is a postulant for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Virginia, said she preaches about once a month, which she acknowledged was different than "having to preach" every week. She said that many priests act as if preaching is "just something else to do on the to-do list" rather than a privilege, "a life or death matter" and "one of the ways that we become known by Jesus and come to know Jesus."

Winner said "it's weird for parishioners to hear clergy complain about having to preach" and suggested an alternative approach for preachers.

"If we remember that preaching is not a just a task on our to-do list and also if we remember that it is not just this abstract privilege -- although it's both of those things -- if we imagine preaching as part of our devotional lives, perhaps even a central part of our devotional lives, then it might become easier to do the way that other things that we love to do are somehow easy to do in the midst of our busy lives," she said.

With that attitude, Winner said, sermon preparation "can be a place of really intimate communion in prayer with parishioners."

Smith, who said he is approaching 40 years in ordained ministry and preaches an average of three times a week, urged conference participants to consider that the gathering's title is "Preaching Jesus," not "Preaching About Jesus."

"Preaching is something that Jesus does now," he said, adding that those who join Jesus in preaching become his "partners and agents and co-creative companions."

He also urged them to introduce into their preaching the language of desire and to invite their listeners to contemplate what happens when they disavow God's longing for them and their longing for God.

He warned that most people, including preachers, "are deeply ambivalent about intimacy with God." Thus, there is a "force field of preaching and listening to preaching" that involves a constant struggle between acknowledging the desire to be wanted and acting out of the fear of not being wanted, said Smith, an Oxford-trained theologian, former monk and author.

"The language of desire is intentionally the language of future tense," he said. Jesus, Smith said, preached about how the reign of God, or what Smith called the future of God, was bursting into the present moment.

Smith suggested that the participants should look to Jesus' preaching for clues about what happens when God's desire is embodied and exposed for contemplation and discussion.

"The preaching of Jesus is an enactment of the coming of the reign of God and an embodiment of the will of God being done on earth, as it expresses and embodies the wanting-to-be of God in our lives," he said. "In preaching, the desire of God to come to be fully in our lives actually takes effect as it elicits the responsive hunger and thirst of the listener."

Jesus, he said, proclaimed "new ethical possibilities in line with the future of God," invited people to "live under the authority of God's future desire" and told his followers that the only way to understand God's future desire is to experiment in living differently than how the culture around them lived.

"And of course the response is outrage," Smith said, noting that many in Jesus' time questioned his authority to teach as he did.

He also warned that some who listened to Jesus were bored or only mildly interested while some were deeply offended. Yet, Smith said, there is a danger when people of faith force the gospel and the preaching of the gospel to meet their own agendas.

"Many Episcopalians are deeply anxious that our version of the Gospel is differentiated from the message of fundamentalists," he said. "So, our preaching is often purged of the shadow and walks so determinedly on the sunny side of the street that preachers end up reinforcing that most terrible indictment of stereotypical Anglicanism: the bland leading the bland."

Other speakers during the conference will include:

  • Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori;
  • the Rev. Dr. Thomas Long, Bandy Professor of Preaching at Emory University's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta and
  • the Rev. Dr. William Willimon, bishop of North Alabama for the United Methodist Church.

Christine Brosend, an adjunct professor of voice and church music at Martin Methodist College in Pulaski, Tennessee, is providing music.

The Episcopal Preaching Foundation's aim is to encourage and enhance preaching in the Episcopal Church. Since it began in 1981, the foundation has sponsored the Preaching Excellence Program each year for seminarians, and provided resources and encouragement to preachers at all levels throughout the church.

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