by Robert Hoch
As we were about to process into church, the preacher of the day turned to me and confessed, “I’m afraid that if the text had a cold, my sermon didn’t catch it!”
He gets points for honesty. But right now, I think he deserves additional credit for the metaphor of the “sick” sermon: a hacking, sniveling, feverish, sleep-deprived, bloodshot witness to the gospel.
This is more than poetic for me: As I write, we live in a sick-house, members of the household suffering from something resembling a short- lived flu to seasonal allergies. At breakfast this morning, with the six of us huddled around the kitchen island, it was a veritable symphony of sneezes, hacks and coughs.
One of my daughters, hoping to escape the plague, stomped off to the living room. “What’s the matter, Imogen?” I asked.
“They’re coughing in there and they’re not covering their mouths,” she said, her lips pulled into an 8-year-old’s pout.
I wonder if we might think of the writers of Scripture as particularly ill-mannered sick people, coughing with happy abandon, spraying unsuspecting readers with a fine mist of a gospel infection.
Although it may not be an attractive image, it appeals to my (some say, sick) sense of the Word proclaimed. Sermons should be sick unto death and infectious for the congregation. Preachers, too, should be infected by the viral subversion of the gospel. The gospel-infected sermon should, in fact, be feverish, running a temperature, a bit dazed and confused by an encounter with the Risen Lord, the inauguration of the new creation.
Abraham Lincoln preferred preachers who looked as if they were being attacked by a hive of wild bees. It seems like a toss between Paul’s “woe” if we do not proclaim the gospel and the peculiar affliction of proclaiming the gospel — with which he was also familiar. But he nevertheless chose (or was chosen by) the latter affliction.
Now how to catch the fever of Scripture? I think it goes to how you read it.
As in Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan, according to James A. Sanders in “The Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching,” you have to interpret the text, not merely talk about the text.
Jesus asks the lawyer, “What does the law say?” — or, rephrased, “What is the appropriate text for this question?”
That’s the easy part, or at least the less difficult part. You actually have to know the biblical narrative well enough to choose an apt text.
And to his credit, the lawyer chose an applicable text.
As do many preachers. Sadly, this is where a lot of preaching stops: with knowledge about the text. Through their exegetical labors, they’ve gotten close enough to the text to describe its literary and historical context, to take the waiting congregation on an enthusiastic tour through Bible-land, but not close enough to be touched, burned, troubled by its witness. In other words, they know about the text, but they haven’t quite indwelled its gesture — the imaginal world — of the text.
Luke’s lawyer was stumped at this point in the story: He knew the law but not its interpretation, not the way it “infects” or “subverts” our conventional worldview. By the time Jesus finished with his parable (the imaginal world of Scripture), I suspect the lawyer wasn’t feeling so good; he was sick or at least he was healed enough to begin to suspect that what he had taken for rude health was, in fact, a sickness masked.
Naturally, sensitive readers hear the irony: The sickness with which Jesus afflicts the lawyer was a better sort of sickness than the “health” the lawyer sought to keep. We are moved to turn the page, to follow this unusual story.
How do you expose yourself and, perhaps, your congregation to the infection of the gospel? Remove your professional gloves, the smock of scientific objectivity. Engage in gritty, highly realistic interpretation.
Ellen F. Davis, author of “Biblical Prophecy: Perspectives for Christian Theology, Ministry and Discipleship,” believes this is characteristic of prophetic interpretation: gritty while at the same time sacramental. She cites, among others, the writing of Flannery O’Connor, whose characters verge on the feverishly grotesque and yet, at the same time, with their fleshiness in full view, reveal God’s inexplicable grace.
One of our former — and exceptionally gifted — students took this call to gritty interpretation to heart. Indeed, she took this call to interpret Scripture to an “adult entertainment” venue on the seedy side of town. Yes, you heard right: She went there to do her biblical exegesis for the sermon. You might not want to try this without adult supervision, but you get the idea: She was determined to expose this world, the grit of sexploitation, to the witness of Scripture.
It takes a certain kind of sickness to go there, I think. A sickness unto death and perhaps, by God’s grace, a sickness that leads to resurrection hope.
Maybe we think of Mary and Martha, protesting when Jesus commanded the stone to be rolled away from Lazarus’ tomb, four days after he had been laid to rest: “By now Lord, he stinketh.”
Like so many of us, we would avoid the pain of this world, because the pain, loss, shame, fear — all these seem so final, irrefutable. They stinketh. But what if the witness of Scripture, breath ragged with a prophetic form of asthma, is calling us to this place? To go to the valley of dry bones, to look far and wide at its expanse, the loss of hope, the absence of vision — and yet, even there, especially there, to call on the Spirit, to preach in a place for a people who are no more?
The dean of Duke Chapel, Luke Powery, worries that a homiletic without lament is a homiletics reduced. He insists that preaching cannot rise to its true height as praise until it finds its true depth as lament, in suffering.
While Powery is critiquing the prosperity gospel, his diagnosis reflects broad trends in North American Christianity. Psychologists Todd B. Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener cite a study conducted by the University of Virginia in which the researchers wanted to “take the pulse of people’s attitudes” by asking people in the U.S. and in South Korea a series of open-ended questions about Jesus, focused on whether he was happy or not.
The results are eye opening. When describing Jesus, North Americans were far more likely to describe him as being “extraverted, open and agreeable” and frequently characterized him as “awesome, nice and good.” By contrast, South Koreans were more likely to use words of discomfort such as “suffering, sacrifice, crucifixion and blood” as descriptors for Jesus — all of which figure rather prominently in the gospel stories.
But perhaps not so much in North American preaching.
According to Kashdan and Biswas-Diener, wholeness in life consists not merely of happiness but also of an “agility” with respect to the negative (anger, bitterness, shame, anxiety).
“Pain,” they announce, “sucks.” At the same time, quoting from Carl G. Jung, they insist that one “does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.’”
As a non-scientific rule of thumb, they say a “whole” life consists of 80 percent positive and 20 percent negative. But the main concern is that we practice agility relative to the negative, differentiating between the feeling and the base identity.
I liken it to Psalm 42:5,11: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?”
The disturbed soul belongs to the psalmist and yet, at the same time, is distinguishable by way of the psalmist’s reflective capacity. The disturbance experienced by the psalmist is, in a figurative sense, held in the primary wisdom and covenantal love of God. In this respect, the psalmist suggests a kind of agility relative to the darkness that would appear to have her soul in its grip.
What if preaching is, in part, agility training for people who are busily fleeing darkness, the agues of the soul? And if it is, do we have scriptural resources for that sort kind of agility?
In his book, “Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer poses a problem, noting that the book of Psalms is unique in the Bible, containing only prayers: “The Holy Scripture is the Word of God to us. But prayers are the words of men. How do prayers then get into the Bible?” Bonhoeffer insists that the Psalms are God’s Word before they are our words.
But, indeed, they are our words, but perhaps not in the way we are accustomed. Ordinarily, we “understand” and out of that understanding we pray (or preach). Not so with the Psalms, says Bonhoeffer: “It does not depend … on whether the Psalms express adequately that which we feel at a given moment in our heart. If we are to pray aright, perhaps it is quite necessary that we pray contrary to our own heart.”
Preaching in a psalmic key cultivates that sort of agility, an ability to remain rooted in God’s loving kindness and yet capable of scrutinizing the darkness our hearts would resist.
The psalmist gives voice to the sickness of the soul and its fears which, left on their own, seem only to grow in strength: “Deliver … my life from the power of the dog” (Psalm 22:20b). For the psalmist, the “power of the dog” is a figure for
the predatory, for the low snarl of half-imagined, half-real dangers encircling, hunting. Giving voice to this sort of fear in the preaching moment can give a congregation the time to perform a little healthy questioning: “Why O my soul are you so disturbed within me?”
It is a care-full question and we raise it in the confidence of God’s love.
The songs of Taizé seem to work this way, allowing ancient prayers to do their holy work, unearthing fears even as they quell them with the deeper word of God’s wisdom.
How to preach the Psalms? Old Testament scholar Rolf Jacobson offers help in this regard: preach the genres (lament as well as praise); empathize and imagine the context; relive or perhaps seek out those who have experienced real thirst (“my soul thirsts for the living God, when can I go and meet my God?”); read for the text’s theological center of gravity (who is God to the psalmist? enemy? friend? stranger? where is God? absent? present? absent and present?); look for deep symbols of the text (e.g. the “miry pit”) and ask, “How would today’s church fill that symbol?”; and so on.
Thinking about this as a pattern for preaching, I wonder if the psalmist supplies an agility with regard to the whole human experience, all held within the sustaining faithfulness of God’s own speaking.
Cynthia Bourgeault, author of “Chanting the Psalms” likens the chanting of the Psalms to a form of Christian yoga. Viewed as a pattern for preaching, the Psalms provide the sermonic “stretch” in question. Each position in a yoga session introduces some kind of stress, the Down Dog, Cobra, Pigeon Pose or, my favorite, the Dancing Cat. Some poses are beyond me, way beyond. For these, the teacher says, adopt a position you can hold comfortably, even as you participate mindfully.
Finally, at the end of the session, the teacher instructs everyone to assume the prone position. Lift up your legs, tighten your calves. Relax. Tighten your abdominals. Relax. Stick out your tongue. Scrunch your face. Relax.
Gather up all the poses in the memory of your body: the difficult, the impossible, the playful, the times when your muscles ached alongside the times where your muscles rested. Give thanks.
I wonder if, in congregational preaching, we are not being led to recover greater experiential agility, to include not only the “praise” but also the laments, not only the shouts of confession, but also the dull ache of doubt, not only the gratitude but also the real demands we make of God — be the God you say you are and be that God now!
And then, all these poses in memory, to give thanks for each of them. Thank God for the gift of life. Thank God even for sickness … for our sickness may be the stirrings of a deeper wholeness.
ROBERT HOCH is ordained as a teaching elder in the PC(USA) and serves as a theological edu- cator at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. His most recent major publication “By the Rivers of Babylon: Blueprint for a Church in Exile” lifts up the symbols of the church as exilic community.