A while back I received (so did my SPRC Chair) a long typed letter excoriating me for my Christmas Eve sermon.
The letter was from an out-of-town relative of a church member who recoiled from the notion of my preaching from Matthew’s genealogy for a Christmas Eve service. In the sermon, I took time to walk through Jesus’ family tree and the rather checkered, soap-opera character of many of the characters: Abraham who nearly killed his son, Jacob who slept with the wrong girl by mistake, Rahab who was a prostitute,Ruth who seduced Boaz, and David who slept with another man’s wife.
In the sermon, I juxtaposed Jesus’ family with my own, drawing the implication that God takes flesh among us, among all our imperfections. The flesh Jesus assumes is a lot like ours, I said, and that’s Good News because that means Jesus accepts us just as we are.
Admittedly, it was not the Christmas Eve sermon many expected but it was faithful to the Gospel message. The sender of the letter, however, was outraged at the mention of such unsavory characters at Christmas and wrote to me that
“We don’t care what the bible says at Christmas we only want to hear about angels, sing Silent Night and leave feeling good about ourselves.”
She went on for another two pages.
The lack of self-awareness in the letter was astounding and only convinced me I’d preached, if not well, truthfully.
Therein lies the crux of the matter, the difficulty of preaching in our present context: mainline congregations who exist in a post-Christian culture but who always seem to be the last in any community to hear the news that Christendom is over.
As the Christmas Eve worshipper’s letter suggests, the difficulty of preaching in such a context is that everyone knows the stories.
Yet no one knows the stories.
The Gospel flounders because it is exceedingly familiar and yet it is exceedingly unfamiliar too.
We are all preachers to a different sort of mission field, one where our listeners aren’t so much ignorant of the Gospel as they are inoculated against it. Their assumed knowledge of scripture is their chief obstacle from being confronted by it. Instead many prefer the hazy goo of nostalgia and sentimentality to a Gospel that’s meant to challenge the powers-that-be, convert sinners and send the Church into the world in service and witness.
The unavoidable truth is that for most of our listeners the status quo of the Empire has worked quite well for them.
It’s easier and preferable to keep the Gospel leashed with sentimentality and self-help principles draped in the guise of the Word.
The term ‘missional’ was just gaining currency when I was in seminary. Today the term is ubiquitous to the point where it risks losing any meaning at all.
What does the missional context of the North American Church mean for the pulpits from which we preach?
I think it demands a sort of contrarian preaching.
I think it requires a fixed determination to upset conventional assumptions about particular passages of scripture. I think it necessitates a refusal on the part of the preacher to conform to listeners’ expectations. In many cases, for our listeners to meet this surprising, Living God requires preachers to make clear that congregations don’t know the stories they think they know.
Perhaps no where is this need more evident than when it comes to the holy days of the year, Christmas and Easter. These two days, especially, book end the Christian Gospel yet they come freighted with so much cultural and quasi-Christian baggage it’s nearly impossible to hear or preach them. How do we convey the Christmas news beyond simply ‘Jesus is born’ or ‘Jesus is born to die for our sin?’ How do upset the conventional Easter bromides about springtime renewal or life after death?
I think only by being stubbornly contrary and going against the grain of what their ears anticipate.