2012-05-22

Festival of Homiletics

To my Christian friends and parishioners: I'm on your side. To my atheist friends and parishioners: I'm on your side. Aside from a few quibbles here and there that I think turn out to be wholly semantic, the only significant point on which I disagree with either of you is the one point on which you both seem to agree -- to wit, that it's not possible to be on both sides at once.

It is, and I am.

The tribal Christians, who would like to defeat atheism, and the tribal atheists, who would like to defeat Christianity, will both be disappointed in me for my report on my experience at the 2012 Festival of Homiletics. Let us all pray, and/or meditate, and/or go to therapy to get over ourselves. Here's the report.

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This year's "Festival of Homiletics" was the "20th anniversary" (does that make it the 21st such Festival?), and this year it was in Atlanta, GA, from Monday evening to Friday noon, May 14-18. The event drew about 1200 pastors, almost all of them from mainline Protestant denominations (Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopal, and Congregational/UCC) to Peachtree Road United Methodist Church and the Festival's additional venues: the restored historic Buckhead Theatre, and, on Wednesday, Ebeneezer Baptist Church (of which Martin Luther King Sr and Jr were once pastors). Attendees included at least eight Unitarian Universalist ministers, including myself and my Florida neighbor colleagues Kathy Schmitz of Orlando and Ron Hersom of Jacksonville.

I like the way the Christian tradition retells old stories and weaves new stories out of them. For example, here's one old story I heard retold. Mark 9:14-29:
When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?”Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “If you are able! —All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand. When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “This kind can come out only through prayer.”
I heard Anna Carter Florence preach on this passage. Question: So if “this kind” can come out only through prayer, where was the prayer? Jesus doesn’t appear to have prayed. He says, “I command you, come out of him.” That's not a prayer. If there is a prayer in this passage, it would have to be the father’s, when he cries out, “I believe. Help my unbelief.”

Cool. We are and we are not. I am strong, so help me in my weakness. I am wise, help me in my folly. I am young (or old), help me in my dotage (or infancy). Prayer flows from the recognition that we are simultaneously both sides of every contradiction. Our selves and our world are undefined, and we feel a desire for clarity, expressed by saying "help me." Prayer is presence to our conflicted, contradictory, and yearning nature. Not exactly what A.C.F. said, but, I think, kinda. Anyway, there are lots of ways to arrive at presence to our conflicted, contradictory, and yearning nature and I'm ready to listen to how Mark offers a way to do that, just as I am to hear how Walt Whitman or Mazu Daoyi or Sigmund Freud offer ways to be present to who and what we are.

Another example. A couple days later, Barbara Lundblad preached on 1 Samuel 3: 10-18:
Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.” Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
Lundblad used this vehicle to comment on the dwindling of mainline Protestantism, particularly among 18-35-year-olds. The church is graying, dying off. Yet something new to connect people and nurture spirits is bound to come along ("emerge"?) In this passage, we see that Eli does not argue with God to preserve the priesthood as he has known it. When Samuel pronounces Eli's doom, Eli simply says, "It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him." The churches are dying. Like Eli, we can accept that death, trusting that an appropriate new form will arise. And, in the meantime, this is a wonderful time to be a pastor because the few people that do come are coming from choice rather than any social pressure.

If Unitarian Universalism were to pass away like Eli, then there wouldn't be people who get their tribal identity, as I do, from seeing themselves as the successors of Channing, Emerson, Parker, Henry Bellows, the Iowa Sisterhood, et al. But the resources those figures provide -- along with every other spiritual resource -- will continue to be available to everyone. We can learn from Theodore Parker, for instance, -- and there will always be people who do -- without wrapping our identity in him. And some form of liberal religion -- albeit a form not identified with a specific strand of 19th-century New England history -- will call people to it as long as there is religion. I love our heritage -- and I love calling it "our" heritage, and supporting the communities that will continue to call that heritage "ours." But the truth is that religion of freedom, reason, and diversity does not require an unbroken line of institutional connection either to William Ellery Channing or to John Murray. If the time comes for that line to break, then break it must. It is the times. Let them do what seems good to them.

The hip, young, tattoed, emergent church Lutheran minister, Nadia Bolz-Weber did tell us: "The holy spirit is not a metaphor because the holy spirit can mess you up." I have no idea why she thinks that ability to mess us up establishes nonmetaphoricality.* I mutter, "yes, it is, too, a metaphor, and metaphors can, indeed, mess you up." There is such a thing as direct, nonlinguistic, immediate experience that isn't a metaphor, but as soon as you open your mouth to call it something -- "holy spirit," for example -- you have re-entered language, and language is always already metaphorical. We have, as it is, precious little idea what anyone is talking about when they say "holy spirit." If it weren't a metaphor, we'd have no idea at all. If you want to transcend metaphor, forget about homiletics (and blogs), and shut up and be still in silence.

But this is a quibble. Mostly, she's charming. Hip and tattoed, as I mentioned, and she tells us she plans to have her memoir published under the title, God's Bitch. What's not to like?

I am bemused by four straight days of examples of what one can do with a fixed canon. One speaker says that the stories of fantasy -- Lewis' Narnia, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Lucas' Star Wars, Rowling's Harry Potter -- are all fundamentally about God's striving to redeem us through love. I take this to mean that these other stories would serve as well as the Gospels do -- but no one else seems ready to make that inference (except the other seven UU ministers who found each other for lunch the second day). Those other stories might work if they were in the canon. But they aren't. And the canon is fixed and closed. I saw these preachers go to an amazing variety of places, but they got there by picking a vehicle from the canonical fleet. Where they go in the vehicles they select is as wide-ranging and diverse as where UU preachers go. They just get a little bit better gas mileage because of the community's adoration of the vehicle. The difference this makes is the difference between me preaching on a passage from Harry Potter to my UU congregation (which I can easily imagine doing) versus me preaching on that same passage to the local chapter of the Harry Potter Fan Club, with the congregation all in costumes, lightning-bolt tattoos on half the foreheads, wands in half the hands, and a setting designed to look like the main hall at Hogwarts. Only, to make the comparison closer, it would have to be some future Harry Potter Fan Club, consisting not only of people who were diehard Potter fanatics, but whose parents, and parents' parents had also been. Even those members of this hypothetical future "school of witchcraft and wizardry" who had their doubts about the moral I drew would love that I was devoting such energies to their story. Not all parishioners are always ready to go where their pastor seeks to take them in the course of a Sunday sermon, but even if they reject the conclusion their preacher declares, preacher and congregation have re-affirmed a bond of loyalty to a particular and fixed canon. That's a potent bond -- one that I cannot help but admire, and from which I cannot help but recoil.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear how often, and how forcefully, many of speakers spoke about the need for churches to be more open and accepting of gay men and lesbians. I don't recall that anyone actually said, "Let's get to work to change our respective denomination's rules that block the ordination of openly gay women and men," or, "Insist on your right as clergy to officiate at same-sex weddings," but a number of speakers sure seemed to be implying both. That's good news. The mainline Prots have come a long way, and I'm happy for them.

I heard such prima facie icky texts as "no one gets to the father but by me" (John 14:6) explained as "no one gets to god but by love." I take that as: No one gets to wholeness and healing but by love. That'll preach -- in my church as in theirs.

But then, toward the end of the 90-hour festival, it seemed,...I don't know. Was it getting a bit more doctrinaire and exclusivist? Or was Christian fatigue making me a little grumpier about the bumps in the road encountered by metaphor vehicles on which, earlier in the week, I'd have happily ridden? Hard to say. One speaker on the last full day vented a little spleen at the Gospel of Thomas. He ridiculed it as "California scripture," and said "there's a reason the 27 books of the New Testament were selected and the others excluded." He said nothing about the political agendas and wranglings that went on for 300 years before the more powerful and insistent band of bishops succeeded in fixing their preferred canon. Whatever "reason" it was that left the Gospel of Thomas out (and left the Gospel of John in, which Elaine Pagels has argued was a gravely unfortunate move) seems to me to have nothing to do with which texts, on their merits, are more helpful to faithful living. Is Thomas-bashing doctrinaire (or "canon-aire") and exclusivist?

Then, later that night of the last full day, we had an Ascension Day Worship Service in which, amidst a truly impressive display of pomp, pageantry, regalia, and ritual, Lillian Daniel preached a rather peevish sermon. "You know what I'm tired of?" she asked, sounding tired and annoyed indeed. Turns out she's tired of just about anybody who isn't as committed as she is to attending and supporting a mainline Prot church. Was it just me, or was that leaning toward an exclusivist narrowing and away from radical welcoming of any person, including the attitudes they bring with them?

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*I can't claim to have invented the word "nonmetaphoricality." Gerald Burns used the word in his Maurice Blanchot: The Refusal of Philosophy, 1997 (thank you, Google). But doesn't it make you want to chime, "expialidocious"?