Sunday, 18 August 2013

Not the medium but the message

(Jeremiah 23.23-29; Hebrews 11.29-12.2; Luke 12.49-56)

Barbara Brown Taylor is an American Episcopalian priest who apparently gets nominated quite routinely as “one of the top ten preachers in North America.” So while she is presently paying a visit to this country, the Church Times took the opportunity to ask her the question, “In the age of the screen and social media, is the sermon at risk?” Perhaps this is a dangerous way for me to start!
Here’s her answer to that question:
I know plenty of people who will happily listen to a good storyteller, lecturer, or stand-up comedian for 20 minutes; so technology does not seem to be the problem. The problem has more to do with the setting, content, and purpose of the traditional sermon, which too many people experience as predictable, manipulative, or both.
As long as sermons are conceived as being about affirming a certain belief system, and recruiting new believers to it, then they are going to attract only people who are in the market for those things.
When I preach, my goal is to say something that sounds like good news to anyone who is listening, no strings attached. There's no substitute for the unmediated presence of a live speaker, which is dangerous and potentially catalytic in a way that watching a screen will never be. 
So she’s saying the opposite of what has become received wisdom. The sermon has its place. The preacher has his or her place: “There's no substitute for the unmediated presence of a live speaker...” The problem is not the medium but the message.
The big issue is what should the message be? What should we be trying to put over to anyone with the ears to hear? And there’s something to think about in her answer: “When I preach, my goal is to say something that sounds like good news to anyone who is listening, no strings attached.”
What sounds like “good news” to you? What sounds like “good news” to you that is also good news to other people? – “good news” to people you might not get on with? And how does the Church deal with the fact that people are looking for quite different things in issues of daily life and in what they consider to be important? That’s a question that sometimes defeats us – perhaps because we haven’t got the vision or understanding to deal with it; but sometimes it perplexes even the most able, intelligent and wise.
“Good news,” I think, is going to entail the admission that we simply don’t get it right all the time. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, was at the Edinburgh Book Festival last week. He was reminded that his years as archbishop were marked by turbulence over the church's stance on the role of gay priests and bishops; gay marriage became a subject for angry debate; and homophobia became an issue in the wider Anglican Communion. So did he feel he had let down gay and lesbian people? His response was first a pause to think about it. Then he said,
I know that a very great many of my gay and lesbian friends would say that I did. The best thing I can say is that is a question that I ask myself really rather a lot and I don't quite know the answer.
Perhaps he could have quoted Jesus in today’s Gospel reading: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three…” There’s a realism in what Jesus says: try as hard as you may, but people are not going to agree. If they fall out over words and feelings, that’s bad enough. When they come to blows and take up guns and bombs, that is the world as we all too tragically know it.
Barbara Brown Taylor had said, “When I preach, my goal is to say something that sounds like good news to anyone who is listening, no strings attached.” And the point of Jesus’ teaching is that it should be “good news.” The problem is what we want to hear, and what we are prepared to do
The Church Times asked Barbara Brown Taylor about her experience of giving up her pastoral ministry as a parish priest – she’s written a book about it called, Leaving Church. So, they asked her, “What do you miss, and what do you not miss?”  
I miss doing baptisms and funerals, visiting nursing homes, and being called to the emergency room in the middle of the night. I miss being immersed in a great worship service, which is like conducting a great symphony. I miss the children, and watching them grow up.
I do not miss being the object of people's inordinate adulation, or hostility. I do not miss breaking up church fights - or causing them - or trying to meet my own expectations of what a good priest should be and do. I do not miss being the CEO of a small non-profit organisation that relies on overworking its volunteers. But, in hindsight, I bless it all. 
As I read these words, I could hear a chorus of clergy crying, “Yes to that!” “I do not miss being the object of people's inordinate adulation, or hostility. I do not miss breaking up church fights - or causing them…” But if that’s how it is in the Church as we know it, that’s how it was for Jesus, who comes to preach good news, who heals the sick, gives sight to the blind and even raises the dead – but with it also by his own admission brings division.
The word “Gospel” means simply Good News. It’s Good News that we are to preach, it’s Good News that we are to live out day-by-day. It needs to be Good News for the people we meet, whoever they are, with no strings attached. But it’s not the same as something that will keep everybody happy. It’s not a lowest-common-denominator, let’s-not-offend-anyone religious message. The Good News of the Kingdom recognises the true needs of our world. Good news for the poor can’t be preached while the rich are appeased. There are scarce prospects for peace in a world where so much reliance is placed upon weapons of force. Injustice for women will continue as a matter of fact while the administration of the law in so many parts of the world remains the preserve of men. Bullying and discrimination are perpetuated whenever people insist on the right to say whatever they think and feel about people who they perceive as different. While all this remains true, the message of Jesus brings division. But how else can it achieve its aims?
The Gospel of Jesus is simple Good News. But what do we hear? How will we hear? Listen in faith, says the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews – and recognise God’s Good News in a faith which is “stronger than kingdoms,” in a weakness which is greater than strength, in justice and promise, in the hope of Resurrection. And if it’s to be good news for everybody, we should add that we need to listen – and respond – with humility. God provides “something better” not only for me but for all those people who are quite different from me. Together we are called to be God’s people; for us all Jesus is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” He shows it when he goes to the Cross for love of the whole world, for me, for you, for those people we don’t get on with. If he didn’t do it for them, how could he do it for me?

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