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Lectionary vs. Series Preaching: Which is Better?

by Drew 5 Comments
Wine Glass style pulpit from St. Matthew's German Evangelical Lutheran in Charleston, SC (1872), courtesy Cadetgray via Wikimedia Commons

Wine Glass style pulpit from St. Matthew’s German Evangelical Lutheran in Charleston, SC (1872), courtesy Cadetgray via Wikimedia Commons

Should the preacher follow the lectionary or preach topically, via series?

This is not a question with which every preacher is faced.  It’s largely a Mainline Protestant debate; Catholics and Orthodox follow pre-selected readings each week for the homilies that are attached to the primary liturgical action of the eucharist, while Baptists, charismatics, and “non-denominational” traditions are often completely unaware of what the lectionary is, much less its possible benefits.  In the gray zone are Methodists, Presbyterians, UCC, and perhaps a few others – I’m not as familiar with typical Lutheran practice, while most Episcopalians I know are strict lectionary preachers.

As a United Methodist, the lectionary is encouraged – particularly in seminary and at the denominational level – but it is certainly not required or even especially encouraged by our bishops and other supervisors.  Indeed, most of the pastors who are held up as exemplars for us rank-and-file preachers are almost exclusively series preachers.  Often these are folks like Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter who have cut their teeth on the series ethos that dominates most church planting models.  You might find lectionary preaching at large, downtown “First” or “Central” UMCs, but I’m comfortable saying that the vast majority of our largest and fastest-growing churches see much more series/topical preaching than lectionary-based preaching.

Which is better?

In some ways, this is a foolish debate, a faux war akin to the “left Twix vs. right Twix” commercials.  There are benefits and drawbacks to both.  Some contexts lend themselves more to one or the other.  The giftedness, training, and method of preparation of different preachers will also have a role in which style best fits the voice and skills of a particular proclaimer.

If I’m honest, I think lectionary preaching is harder – but I tend to preach in series.  I like the long-term preparation I can put into series preaching, and I the musicians with whom I lead worship appreciate knowing, far in advance, my texts and themes.  For my first couple of years in full-time ministry, I preached almost exclusively lectionary, but since then, I’ve preached mostly series.  I tend to follow the themes of the liturgical calendar – hope and promise in Advent, discipleship and the cross in Lent, etc. – but without tying myself to lectionary texts.

Is this, in some ways, a false divide? Yes. One can certainly plan sermon series based on the lectionary.  I’ve done this in two ways: a) looking ahead for 4-6 weeks and seeing if a thread emerges from the various lectionary texts onto which I can hook, or b) sticking with a particular book for a period of time and making it a series on Mark, or the Psalms, or 1 Timothy, etc.  I’ve enjoyed both, and commend both methods to you.  But of course even this kind of planning, via, the lectionary, takes away some of the benefits for which proponents of the lectionary advocate.

Major benefits of both kinds of preaching:

Lectionary Benefits

  • Challenge of being confronted with a text (or texts) rather than choosing them with a particular reading in mind
  • A plethora of liturgical, preaching, and other resources (many of them free)
  • Follows the liturgical calendar
  • Broad ranging texts across both Testaments
  • Week-to-week planning enables easier flexibility if something happens that necessitates homiletical flexibility (such as a sudden loss in the community or a national tragedy)
  • Revisiting the same texts every three years demands creativity and a depth of exegesis that can be lacking in other forms

Series Benefits

  • Ability to build on themes over a period of time
  • Freedom to preach texts not included or marginalized by the lectionary
  • Ability to tie preaching themes to the rhythms of time other than the liturgical (a New Years or Back to School series, for instance)
  • Long-range planning is (arguably) easier
  • Can speak to particular needs in a sustained manner (i.e. recovery, eschatology, theodicy, rather than waiting for them to pop up or twisting lectionary texts to find them)
  • Easier to communicate content and ethos to unchurched people

My own take is that lectionary preaching lends itself best to liturgical contexts.  There is clearly, from what we’ve already said, a correlation between liturgical worship and lectionary-based preaching.  Why might this be? Certainly a strong tether to the church calendar is part of it.  But also, lectionary preaching, which via most teachers is often tied strongly to just one text, lends itself naturally to the shorter 8-12 minute homilies one finds in more liturgical contexts – churches where, to be blunt, the eucharist takes precedence over proclamation.  More Protestant contexts where the preached Word is emphasized often expect sermons of 20-30 minutes, or even longer, which tend to range over a variety of Biblical texts rather than simply mining one pericope.

Which is better – for you, for your context? Should our bishops, synods, and denominational offices take a harder stand on this?

I won’t presume to answer the question for you, but I would conclude by offering this: try a kind of preaching that is outside your comfort zone, that stretches you.  Are you a series preacher? Make yourself stick to lectionary texts for a month.  Are you a lectionary preacher? Use the somewhat bland summer months to try a series, even if it is crafted from the lectionary readings themselves.

Both forms of preaching can be God-honoring and transformative to the listeners.  Both can also be dreadfully dull springboards for eisegesis, therapeutic indulgence, and personal agendas.

Which works best for you? Why? Where do you see excellence in series preaching? Who are our examples of quality lectionary preachers? Join the conversation below!

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Allowance is Not Affirmation: Why “A Way Forward” Might Be

theodicy cartoon

Would you want to worship a God whose “plan” involved this? Me neither.

I am having difficulty keeping up with all the proposals and counter-proposals running around the UMC right now.*  The one with the most steam still seems to be A Way Forward, simply because of the big names and churches behind it.   The conservative reaction against this proposal has been swift and strong, which is not surprising.  I have, however, been puzzled by the reasoning of some opponents.  Take, for instance, this reflection from Matt O’Reilly, which reads in part:

“If General Conference permitted those Annual Conferences that choose to ordain practicing homosexuals to do so, then that would amount to General Conference giving its blessing to the practice of homosexuality. Allowing the decision to be made locally does not amount to a neutral position on the part of the General Conference. If this proposal were implemented, it means that The United Methodist Church would affirm the compatibility of homosexual practice with Christian teaching, even if it did not require all Annual Conferences to ordain practicing homosexuals and local churches to bless homosexual unions.”

In short, the chief problem with this argument – that allowance is basically equal to affirmation –  is theodicy.

Arminians like Matt and myself are not burdened by the micromanaging, puppet-master God of hyper-Calvinism.  We don’t have to say that all things happen for God’s glory, for some “reason” or “purpose” that aligns with God’s mysterious will.  One of the things A Way Forward gets right is this basic theodicy: God is not the author of evil, but God can and often does draw good out of evil.   That is critically different from merely accepting all things that happen as God’s will and not asking tough questions.

That leaves us in a difficult spot, though.  Unless one goes down some dead-end road like process theology, which compromises God’s power and/or knowledge, Arminians have to affirm that God is omnipotent.  God can do anything.  That means God allows things that are against His will, things that are morally horrific, even though they cause Him pain.  Think, for instance, of the suffering of children, or the martyrdom of countless saints in the history of the church.  Does God want these things to happen? I would find that God quite difficult to worship.  But does God allow them, in at least a minimal sense that He could intervene to stop them?  Yes.  And we will, and should, wrestle with that.

But there is mile-wide gap between allowance and affirmation, and the distinction is important.  In that sense, allowing pastors and churches more flexibility in determining their ministry to same-sex couples is not necessarily tantamount to the church “affirming” those choices.  In the Book of Discipline we allow differences in crucial matters such as war & peace and abortion.  Does this mean affirming all those possible positions? No.  It means allowing a diversity of reactions to complex matters.

I’m not a signatory to A Way Forward. I have my own issues with it, which myself and others from Via Media Methodists will be discussing on an upcoming issue of the WesleyCast.  But the argument that allowance must be seen as affirmation is false . In that sense, then, I would argue that A Way Forward has potential.   It’s not perfect, but with work, it might just be a legitimate way forward.

At any rate, I’m excited to see that there is a great deal of energy being expended in various attempts to keep us together.  Breaking up is the easy way out, but we are adults.  We should be able to disagree without ceasing our fellowship.

And as for disagreeing with Matt, well, he’s going to be at my Annual Conference (speaking at a way-too-early evangelical gathering), and I look forward to discussing these differences face-to-face!

_____

*Kudos to Joel Watts for his new proposal.  His is the only one I’ve seen that suggests – in the name of order – swift and firm accountability for those who violate the possible new settlement.  One of the pieces most of the proposals I have seen lack is some of assurance that the same manner of “disobedience” we are currently seeing won’t be tolerated under a new arrangement.  Any compromise will not please all of the extreme elements, which is why a determination on the part of the leadership to hold strongly to any new situation is crucial.  Otherwise we will not be settling a vital question in the church, we will just be moving the goal lines and welcoming the same kind of strife to continue.

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Review: Seeing Black and White in a Gray World by Bill Arnold

by Drew 3 Comments

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I recently finished Dr. Bill Arnold’s new book, Seeing Black and White in a Gray World: The Need for Theological Reasoning in the Church’s Debate Over Sexuality (Franklin: Seedbed 2014).  Dr. Arnold, a professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, has written this book in response to Adam Hamilton’s popular book (of a similar name) Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White.  Professor Arnold is going to be one of my conversation partners at an upcoming forum in New York, and I thought reading his recent book would be helpful preparation for that discussion.

In short, I found much to appreciate in Arnold’s work. His purpose is fairly straightforward.  As he describes in the preface, Arnold read Hamilton’s book in advance of his service as a delegate to the (now infamous) 2012 General Conference in Tampa.  His initial description hints at many of the critiques he develops later in the book:

“I was not disappointed in Adam’s honest and straightforward book seeking a ‘third way’ through and beyond the controversies confronting the church today. I was disappointed, however by other features of the book.  I was surprised by the number of unsupported assumptions, errors of reasoning, and flawed arguments running throughout the book.  I also had questions about some of the theological assumptions, and Adam’s reliance on pragmatism, sometimes at the expense of theology.” (xv-xvi)

If you’ve never before studied logic, you are in for a crash-course. Arnold offers a helpful introduction to logical fallacies at the outset.  When reading, it is critical to catch these as he describes them because Arnold refers to them throughout.  Especially helpful is Dr. Arnold’s discussion of Scripture from a Wesleyan point of view, including his critique of the rampant misappropriation of the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral and the need for a canonical reading of the Bible (what Wesley referred to as the “whole tenor” of Scripture).

Furthermore, I found Arnold’s discussion of the “myths” (as he calls them) that hinder our debate about same-sex relationships in the church quite helpful; these include “orientation” as determinative, liberation as a desired telos, and civil rights as an analogy for the current church struggles over same-sex relationships.  For my own part, I would grant that these would have a great deal more purchase on questions our society faces vis-a-vis civil unions and rights of visitation, inheritance, etc., but they are not adequately theological categories to ground discussion within the church.

There are some difficulties in consistency with Arnold’s work.  He accuses Adam Hamilton of the fallacy of “false dilemma” for asking, “Are John Shelby Spong and Jerry Falwell our only options?” but then goes on to hammer the extent to which (using a Yogi Berra quote) questions about same-sex practice leave us two paths.  “Sometimes we simply stand at a fork in the road. There is no sense complaining or crying over it. We have only two choices before us.” (86)

Similarly, he frequently disparages the search for a middle way (and of course I take this a bit personally), but yet approvingly observes in the preface that the current UM position already is a third or middle way:

“The current UMC approach is already a balanced and healthy third-way alternative…between those who simply accept and celebrate same-sex practices on the one hand, and those who condemn both the practices and the people who experience same-sex attraction on the other.” (xvii)

Later, Arnold will also stringently critique Adam and others like him who seek a compromise or middle way between any two alternatives for falling to a logical fallacy called begging the question: “Instead of asking whether or not such a middle way is possible, this time Adam has failed to consider whether such a middle way is preferable.” (97)  It appears, though, as if middle ways are preferable when he likes them, or can picture them, but to be avoided when he cannot envision them.

This is important because Arnold is not always accurate when deciding which questions are black and white (“fork-in-the-road”) or when compromises are possible.  For instance, he discusses Adam’s reflections on just war and Christian pacifism, concluding: “His is no gray area position. He has effectively taken a position on the side of justifiable warfare.” (166)  This overlooks that Just War is itself a middle or alternative way between the extremes of pacifism and realism, and that there are many construals of Just War theory, some of which would agree with Hamilton’s position (supporting the first Gulf War but not the second), and some of which would not.  Of course, this could be something overlooked by Hamilton as much as Arnold.

It’s worth pointing out, and it is to his credit, that Dr. Arnold is very complimentary of Adam Hamilton and says he counts him as a friend (though he seems to be making a cottage industry of critiquing Church of the Resurrection’s pastor).  By and large his reading of Hamilton is thorough and when he is critical, he is fair.  I wonder, though, about Hamilton as the conversation partner for this particular book.  It is not often that books are written that so directly refute another book, and in this case we have a very odd dichotomy: Arnold, an Old Testament scholar who was heretofore not written much at all in the popular vein (as he admits from the outset), taking on a popular and successful pastor whose work is more practical than scholarly.  Moreover, while Arnold says (on xvi) that he is only “using Adam’s book as representative of others in the same vein,” he never names who those others might be.

This leads to perhaps my most significant question about Arnold’s work: he has few conversation partners, to judge from the footnotes, who would disagree with him.  That is, a large number of his interlocutors are folks of similar conviction: names like Billy Abraham, Kenneth Collins, Joy Moore, and Maxie Dunnam come up regularly, but critics from the other end of the spectrum, or even from the middle, are largely absent – though Richard Hays might be a noticeable exception.  All that to say, it seems a somewhat problematic to write a book about the virtues of “seeing black and white” if the footnotes indicate one mostly only consulted those who already agree from the outset.   Arriving at the promised land of “black and white” is a cheap victory if it is done by not engaging opposing voices.

Lastly, I am not as convinced as Arnold in his conclusion that, “the problem with the church today isn’t that there is too much black and white, but not enough.  What we really need is less gray, not more.” (198)  Many things, even great and central matters of the faith, are not all that “black and white.”  At our best, Wesleyans, similar to the Christian East, have not shied away from mystery when it comes to the things of God.  The two foundational doctrines of the church’s faith, the Trinity and the Incarnation, are mysteries at their very heart.  Moreover, in a few short days Christians will observe Good Friday, and remember the affliction of Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity; the Fathers of the Church would remind us, however, that somehow he suffered “impassibly.”  Finally, the Eucharist is described in our own liturgy as a “holy mystery,” which harkens back to the Wesleys, who had little interest in delving into the quagmire of sacramental mechanics that occupied previous generations.  Thus Charles, showing a distinct lack of concern for “black and white” understandings of Chris’s presence at the Table, would have us sing,

How can heavenly spirits rise,
By earthly matter fed,
Drink herewith Divine supplies,
And eat immortal bread?
Ask the Father’s Wisdom how;
Him that did the means ordain!
Angels round our altars bow
To search it out in vain.

Sure and real is the grace,
The manner be unknown…

(Hymns on the Lord’s Supper, #57)

Gray, it turns out, is not something from which God’s people should flee.  In fact, it is impossible.  Nevertheless, Professor Arnold’s new book has given us some helpful paths forward and named some of the major problems with how we are going about our most pressing conversations.  I am not convinced that dialogue is dead, mostly because we have not been doing dialogue well at all.  Bill Arnold’s book, if read and received by many across the ideological divides in the UMC, would help us all be more charitable, clear, and effective conversationalists.

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A Prayer to Remember the Last Supper

by Drew 1 Comment

Artist’s rendering of a triclinium, the table Jesus and his disciples would have used to celebrate the Passover Seder. Da Vinci was way off.

I wrote the following prayer to open the service today, as we began a series based on Adam Hamilton’s 24 Hours That Changed the World:

Gracious God,
Who fills our plates with good food
and our cups to overflowing:

We thank you that your Son eats with sinners, even those like Peter
who deny him
and like Thomas
who doubt him
and like Judas
who betray him.

We thank you that Jesus still prepares a feast for people like us.
Help us to take our place at his table now,
that we may feast at the great banquet to come. Amen.

It also occurred to me (and I’m probably not the first to notice this, though I haven’t heard it before myself) that this event recorded in the gospels is misnamed.  If it were actually the “last” supper, then we would not be worshiping Jesus as the Christ and the Second Person of the Trinity.  Jesus conquered death and went on eating and drinking; in fact, the disciples didn’t recognize him until he broke the bread (Emmaus).

We look forward to what John the Revelator calls “the marriage supper of the lamb,” in which the bride of Christ shall rejoice to see her savior face-to-face in unbroken communion in that Kingdom which is breaking in even now.  Amen.

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The Gospel: Liberal & Conservative

The following is an excerpt from the sermon delivered last Sunday, part of a series I’m doing on how to follow Jesus in a polarized culture.  I used Deuteronomy 4 to discuss the constant (conservative) call of Israel to remember God’s work among them, and Jesus’ controversial sabbath healings as an example of his (liberal) tendencies to stretch the bounds of acceptable law observance.  I’ve received inspiration from Adam Hamilton for this series, especially from his book Seeing Gray in a World of Black & White.  Here it is:

When it comes to thinking through and living out our faith in the world, our culture has set us up to fail.  Our talking heads tell us that everything has to be one way or the other: left or right, donkey or elephant, blue state or red state.  When we come to the faith assuming that everything can fit neatly into one of two boxes, we lose something very precious: the gospel itself.  Jesus was not a Republican or a Democrat, but all too often we try to argue that the view of the world we prefer must have been the view of Jesus.  Father James Schall put it this way:

“The division of the world into “liberal” and “conservative” on every topic from politics to our taste in cuisine, clothes, or automobiles is one of the really restricting developments that has ever happened to us. If we are not what is considered popularly a “liberal,” then we must, by some convoluted logic, be a “conservative,” or vice versa. No third or fourth option is available as is usually the case in the real world. It has to be, we are told, either this way or that.

Such a view makes things very simple, I suppose. But it also reduces our minds to utter fuzziness. We are required to define everything as either liberal or conservative even when the two allowable terms of definition are not adequate to explain the reality that they are intended to describe.” (1)

The gospel is certainly something so marvelous, so transformative and beautiful and powerful, that a simple “left or right” is not remotely close to being able to describe it.  Today we are continuing in our series The Extreme Center: Following Jesus in a Polarized World.  I’m going to show today how the gospel is both “liberal” and “conservative.”  That, of course, is just another way of saying that the gospel is not easily defined one way or the other.  The message of Jesus refuses to be pigeonholed into our simple categories, it shatters them, it stretches us, and challenges us with a third way that is neither solely “liberal” or “conservative”: the way of cross and resurrection…

The gospel, then, is liberal and conservative. It’s both, which is also to say that it is neither.  The way of Jesus is higher than those cultural divisions.  Recognizing that is one way that Christians of all sides and stripes can seek the extreme center together: like Jesus, all of us seek to conserve some things and change some things.  None of us are a simple as these labels, even if we claim them strongly.  The gospel, the good news that God has entered the world as a human and opened up salvation to all people, also cannot be reduced to one of these categories without making it something unrecognizable. 

A few years back there was a commercial on TV that opened with two infants trying to learn their shapes.  They had those toys that hollow out different shapes in plastic, like a triangle, a circle, a square, and a rectangle, and the goal is to match them all up.  They are both struggling with the square piece, pushing and yelling and twisting, trying to get it to fit into the round hole.  Then it flashes forward, both of them are grownup mechanics under the hood of a car.  One of them is struggling with a battery, trying to make it fit right into its cradle.  He’s banging it with a hammer, and over his shoulder his buddy is yelling, “Just keep hitting it, it’ll fit eventually.”  Of course, the lesson was that you don’t want mechanics like this working on your car.  All they are going to do is damage your car.

Trying to fit the gospel into the convenient confines of a box like ‘left’ or ‘right’ also does damage.  In our polarized culture, Christians of every political persuasion want Jesus on their side, and so he is trotted out to bless this position or Scripture is quoted as simple justification of this legislation.  Parties and candidates try to convince us that they are God’s choice, which means that the other side must be against God.  All of this does great harm to the gospel.  It reduces the message of Jesus to a tool to gain power.  It renders unto Caesar what is God’s.  On a practical level it harms evangelism, it will turn off all those on the other side who may be searching for God but are suspicious of a God who looks tailor-made for this or that party or issue.

Chuck Colson, a writer and activist whose life was transformed after being put in prison as part of the Watergate scandal wrote this:

“…Christians should never have a political party.  It is a huge mistake to become married to an ideology, because the greatest enemy of the gospel is ideology.  Ideology is a man-made format of how the world ought to work, and Christians instead believe in the revealed truth of Scripture.” (2)

Friends, the world doesn’t need more ideology.  We fight over it; families split over it; countries are torn in two by it; those in power kill for it.  The world needs Jesus.  Each and every person on this big, round rock need to know the transformative power of Jesus’ love.  But party politics masquerading as faith won’t do it.  People can smell ideology from a mile away; it stinks to heaven.  The gospel, on the other hand, is something so sweet it is unmistakable.  The gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, is too glorious to be contained by our simple categories.  It is its own party, its own “side”; the gospel bids us to show love rather than claim power, because Jesus was exalted by rejecting power and submitting to death.  So, too, all of us, who find ourselves drowning in a sea of partisan politics, of ideology, of talking heads and pundits, must reject our desire to be “right” and give our desire to win over to Christ.  The extreme center, the way of the cross, is the way that asks us to sacrifice everything to him.  To play with Paul a little bit: in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, republican, democrat, left, right, progressive, libertarian, socialist, anarchist.  However it is we participate in the world, whatever our views are, we are to present them at the foot of the cross, the throne of our true Lord, who bids us to be about Kingdom business.  In a world that asks us to choose between black and white, left and right, the only way to win is to refuse to play the game.  Let us follow Jesus not with timidity but extremely, with abandon, with gusto, keeping him at the center, and led out these doors by the Spirit to show a divided world a better way.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

1. “On Being Neither Liberal Nor Conservative,” http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/features2005/schall_libcons_may05.asp

2. Quoted in Lyons and Kinnaman, UnChristian.

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