Sunday, October 18, 2009

Proclaiming the "Good News" ...Good News for Whom?

A Sermon by The Rev. Angela Yarber | October 18, 2009 | Worship & Preaching

Scriptures: Isaiah 61:1-6 and Luke 4:16-21

Most of you know J. and E. For those of you who are newer here with us, J. and E. are the younger siblings of LB, who works in the nursery but is currently away celebrating her 21st birthday, and the grandchildren of B. They are a beloved part of our community and earlier this year, after J. was baptized here on Easter Sunday, they had to move out of state. If we miss them this much, I can only imagine how much LB and B miss them. So, I’d like to tell a story about the role of preaching in worship in their honor.

One Sunday a few years ago, J. helped lead worship. To be honest, I cannot remember what exactly he did in worship, but I think he’d read scripture. After worship, I made my way over to J. to let him know that he did a good job and to thank him for helping lead us in worship. E. hid behind her older brother. You may recall that E. went through a phase around age 5 or 6 when she didn’t really talk to grown-ups. So, I chatted with J. while E. stood behind him, her face tucked behind her hair. She peeked around her older brother’s shoulder and I said, “Hello E.,” though I didn’t expect her to say anything back. I am a grown up, after all. B walked up as J. began to tell me that E. was embarrassed to talk to me.

“Why on earth would she be embarrassed to talk to me?” I asked J. and B.

E. dropped her chin to her chest and hid her face in her hands as if to say, “Oh no! They’re going to rat me out!” for whatever it was she was embarrassed about.

B then informed me that E. liked to dress up as Rev. Angela at home. She would dance around the house, waving a scarf in Isadora Duncan fashion, as she pretended to be her pastor dancing during worship.

“Then,” J. informed me, “she wraps the scarf around her shoulders like that,” he said pointing to my stole, “and pretends it’s one of those things while she preaches sermons.” E.’s face was bright red, clearly embarrassed that a grown-up was talking in her presence and even more embarrassed that her brother and grandma told about her dress-up playing antics.

I squatted down so that my eyes could meet E.’s and said, “You keep dancing, E., because you can be anything you want to be.”

And of course this story meant a lot to me. To say the least I was quite flattered that a little girl would dress up and pretend to me by dancing and preaching at home. But mere flattery does not capture the essence of E.’s emulation. This story means so much to me because E. wasn’t even 8 years old yet and, in her mind, what it means to be a preacher is a woman, and a dancing woman at that. For E., her vision of what it means to be a dancer isn’t an emaciated sylph being pranced around a ballet stage, but that of a healthy woman with a strong body dancing in church. Perhaps, when E. grows up and someone tells her, “Women can’t be preachers,” E. will respond, “I don’t know what you’re talking about because I’ve seen women preaching my whole life.”

Such is the case for the children of Shell Ridge who will grow up knowing that any person called of God can preach the good news: no matter their gender, race, age, sexual orientation, nationality, educational level, economic status, or background. Imagine what it would be like if, from your most formative years, you saw and heard just as many women in pulpit as you did men. Just as many gay people as straight people. Just as many younger adults as older adults.

Jesus said, “God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. God has sent me to preach release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to preach the year of the Lord’s favor.” I’ve got good news, E.; I’ve got good news, children of Shell Ridge; you can be anything you want to be.

What’s interesting about E.’s imitation is that it wasn’t based on the words that came from the pulpit. Her dressing up as Rev. Angela had little to do with the words of a sermon. Because, as you know, our children typically leave for Sunday School before the sermon. They only remain in the sanctuary during the sermon on communion Sundays. And while I’m sure that every sermon I preach or Greg preaches makes everyone in the room—especially little children—hang on to every single word, sitting on the edge of their seats, waiting for that next nugget of truth, I would surmise that E. didn’t dress up as her pastor because of my sermons. Rather, E. deduced that she was valuable and worthy and that women can be preachers and dancers, not because of what we SAY during worship, but because of what we DO.

It’s interesting that I would minimize the importance of what we SAY from the pulpit on a Sunday when the emphasis in worship is on the role of preaching. Preaching is, indeed, what is said, isn’t it? While Saint Francis did proclaim, “Preach the gospel; use words if necessary,” when we typically think of preaching, we think of words. Words carefully crafted, stitched together with intentionality, words from scripture, words from the history of the church, theological words, prophetic words. A sermon is made up of words, right? My all-time favorite preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor, is described as a “word smith,” winner of one of the twelve “most effective preachers in the English language.” One the world’s all-time best preachers, Fred Craddock, describes Taylor as having the rare ability of “writing to be heard as well as read.” The word smith is one of the world’s best preachers, so the words must be an important part of a sermon, right?

While I’m sure we all agree that the content of what we say, the words that make up the sentences that make up the paragraphs that make up what is being preached are important. Words are monumentally important and have the power to hurt or heal in a way that is universal; we’ve all experienced the power of words, both positively and negatively. But I think Saint Francis was on to something when he minimized the importance of our words.

In fact, even the word that Jesus uses to describe what God has called him to do in his so-called “first sermon” that we read from Luke this morning, doesn’t mention anything about words. Rather, Jesus uses the Greek word ευαγγελισασθαι − ευαγγελιζω. This word literally means “bring good news, preach the good news, preach the good news to, preach, proclaim.” And while inference and common sense reminds us that words, speech, talking is a part of preaching and proclaiming, sometimes we elevate the words at the expense of the actions. Jesus quotes Isaiah 61, which calls us to “preach good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to preach liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to preach the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Preaching the good news to the oppressed could involve words, but it also involves action: walking at the CROP walk, volunteering at the Food Bank, writing letters and calling congress people to insist on the importance of health care for those who are oppressed. In the instance of preaching the good news to the oppressed, words mean very little if they are not accompanied by action.
In the same way, binding up the brokenhearted and preaching liberty to the captives could involve words, but the words mean very little if they are not accompanied by action: hugging, calling, sending cards and food to the person who has lost a loved one or a job, feeding the hungry, standing against human trafficking.
And when Jesus quoted Isaiah as saying God calls us to preach release to the prisoners, I’m sure words weren’t the only thing he had in mind. Because what I say from the pulpit has little impact on the 75% of minorities on death row who wrongly accused. The words we say and sing and pray mean little to the countless people who are held captive, prisoners because of an unjust legal system that systematically penalizes the poor.

So, when Jesus preached his first sermon in Luke 2, I’m not too sure he was thinking of the same things we think of when we hear the word “preach.” A pulpit, a platform, a stole, clerical garb to separate you from the congregation, the laity. A finely crafted 2500 word essay exegeting the text for the day. Words—big ones—that only the most educated and pious can understand.

Here me say clearly: what we say is important. The content of our words is formative in worship and faith formation. But words aren’t the be-all-end-all. And words aren’t all that constitutes the ευαγγελιζω, the “good news” Jesus spoke of.

What else is important in preaching? In addition to the words, the explicit spoken theological messages, what are the implicit theological messages? Well, there’s the obvious, the things a preacher is taught about in a preaching class: oration, dictation, delivery, stage presence. In addition to content, a preacher must be heard, clear. Do you want to listen to a preacher who preaches in a boring monotone voice? Or a thunderously loud voice that hurts your ears? Or a Southern accent so thick that you can’t understand a word? Or with arms crossed over the chest and eyes diverted so that the voice says one thing and the body says something completely different. Delivery is obviously important. And for many preachers, standing in front of a group of people is their biggest fear: public speaking. Fortunately, a life time in the performing arts and musical theatre has made me not-so-nervous when entering the pulpit.
So, there’s the obvious: words and the way you deliver your words. So, now we can all pack up our stuff and go home because we know why preaching is important in worship: words and delivery. The obvious.

But what of those implicit theological messages? The not so obvious? Perhaps the ones Saint Francis had in mind when he said, “Preach the gospel; use words if necessary”? Let’s talk about some of those. Well, E.’s story points to one important implicit message in preaching. And that is the person doing the preaching. If the only person who preaches every Sunday is an old, white man with a grey beard, and no one else is ever in the pulpit, then the message you’re sending to the congregation is that what it means to be a preacher is to be an old white man with a grey beard. The same could be said about any “type” of person. If there is only one gender, or age, or sexual identity, or educational background, or race preaching in the pulpit, then no matter what the preacher says about inclusion or embrace, the message that is preached is that only one type of person is allowed to preach. You can only be a preacher if you look this way. Uh uh, you don’t have to look a certain way to preach the good news.

And while we’re on the subject of looks, let’s talk about fashion: what the preacher wears. And I don’t mean Dulce and Gabbana or Loui Votton, though a preacher who wears these expensive designers may need to read the text from last week about a camel fitting through the eye of a needle before a rich person can go into heaven. I digress. What about what the preacher wears? Should the preacher wear something that clearly indicates that he or she is THE PREACHER, set apart, holy, different from the rest of the congregation: a stole, clerical collar, a robe? And, while you may be thinking, what’s the big deal? Who cares what the preacher wears?! Let us think of the theological message this “set apart” clothing communicates. If the preacher and only the preacher gets a special outfit, stole, robe, collar then no matter what is preached about how we’re all ministers, how every believer is a priest before God, how we can all proclaim the good news, the message the preacher’s outfit is proclaiming is that only some of us special, holy folk are good enough to wear God’s garments and proclaim God’s good news. Uh uh, you don’t have to have special outfit to preach the good news.

And what about where you preach? Behind a big pulpit so that if you’re not above 5 feet tall you need a special stool for people to see you? On a raised platform so that if you’re in a wheelchair you have no way of accessing the pulpit? Can only tall adults preach? Are people in wheelchairs not allowed to preach the good news? While I say some of these things with an air of sarcasm in my voice, I hope that my words bear an element of truth. Because when a preacher stands behind a big pulpit on a raised platform or sits in special chair that looks more like a throne or has an altar rail separating the clergy from the laity, that preaches something theological. The words that make up our sermons mean very little if they don’t match what the location, or outfit, or personality of the preacher is saying.

In contemporary media and culture we know enough of the hypocrisy of preachers. It seems that rarely a day goes by when we don’t hear about a preacher whose words pointed to the ten commandments—do not covet another person’s wife, do not steal—and that same preacher has an affair with the secretary or steals from the church’s budget. We are well-versed in the division between what preachers say and what preachers do.

So, preach the gospel. Use words if necessary. Think about the message we’re preaching with our actions and inactions. For as Isaiah tells us “you shall be called priests of the Lord, you shall be named ministers of our God.” I’m not the only preacher in the room today. And I’m not simply referring to all of our other ordained ministers like Willis and Terry and Micky. I’m referring to all of you. You don’t need a special outfit to preach the good news to the oppressed. You don’t need to stand behind a pulpit to bind up the broken hearted. You don’t have to be a man, white, straight, making $80,000/year with a Masters degree to preach liberty to the captives.

YOU are God’s preachers. YOU are the priests and ministers of our God. YOU are called and empowered to preach release to the prisoners. NOW is the year of the Lord’s favor. I’ve got good news, Shell Ridge. You can be anything you want to be. Now go preach that good news to the world!