by Andrew Stephens-Rennie
What does it all mean, this gospel of muck and filth?
What does it mean to wrestle, together, with the implications of this gospel — this good news — that has entered our world? And what does it mean to wrestle with a gospel that is not just some old story, but is a story being told and retold and interpreted amongst us even today?
A number of years ago I shared some of my early sermons with the pastor of the church I was then attending. “These aren’t sermons,” he said, “I’m not sure what you’re trying to do here, but these are definitely not sermons.” I had a sense he might not understand, but he had been curious in weeks previous, and I was willing to share. Problem was, those sermons weren’t linear, clearly argued 3-points and a poem sorts of things. They couldn’t be.
I preached my first ever sermon at Wine Before Breakfast at the University of Toronto six years ago. It was a struggle. Up all night, nervous and unable to put pen to paper. I had been wrestling with the passage for weeks, trying to hear what God might be saying. And while there was plenty to be heard, plenty to be said, I just couldn’t say it.
Or, I couldn’t say it the way I thought I ought.
I grew up in a church where the sermon had to be a certain way, and performed a particular task. The sermon, a lecture. Sometimes heady. Sometimes passionately wrought, the sermon unpacked the scripture so as to make its point. More directly: it made whatever point the pastor hoped to drive home.
But what, I wanted to know, was the point of that?
As I wrestled with scripture in the library that night, I wanted deeply to know what my role was in opening the scriptures in the midst of this community. I think most of all, I wanted to be sure not to get in the way of what God sought to do amongst us. But it wasn’t until I shed the “ought” in my mind that the words began to drip off my pen. What was written ended up more poetry than prose.
This all came to mind last month when Nathan Colquhoun wrote his questioning post “I’m Losing Interest in Preaching but I Feel Like I Shouldn’t.” Nathan writes:
Preaching is slowly becoming this dreary thing that I can’t help but thinking of it as an empty routine. I enjoy formulating arguments, doing research and thinking about theology a lot. I enjoy reading and thinking and asking questions and then asking them out loud again in front of a bunch of people and gauging their reactions.
Over the past number of years, my perspective on the sermon has shifted considerably. Rather than simply transferring knowledge and research from my mind to the congregation, I have come to see the sermon as an incredible opportunity for a Christian community to, as my friend Jenny says, “come together to crash into each other, to explore something, and ultimately to be changed.”
But this is not modern preaching. It’s not the preaching of the established church. If anything, it finds itself much more at home in a postmodern setting than in the halls of modernity. That is to say, that such preaching is marginal to the dominant systems at play in many of our churches, and in society at large.
What I don’t understand is why there are such implied rules or constraints around the way in which we open the gospel. If we truly believe that the gospel is a living breathing thing, that is constantly being revealed in our midst, why are we so keen to limit it through our words? Are there better ways to preach the gospel so that we might be truly transformed?
What will it take for our imaginations to be reignited, and for our communities of faith to be reignited by a gospel that calls everything into question?