Thursday, January 8, 2015

Preach from Your Feet

Our feet connect us to the earth. They ground us. They move us forward and backward and anchor us as we stand still. They are intricate physiological creations that do quite a bit. They aren't always pretty, and they balance us on our journeys.

The preacher one evening at the Academy of Preachers National Festival invited us to find a partner, kneel, and bless each other's feet. Then she reminded us to preach from our feet, from our grounding, from our earthiness, from that which moves us.

The Academy of Preachers is an organization dedicated to mentoring and developing young preachers. Click here for more information. Each year they hold a national festival where young preachers from diverse backgrounds and denominations gather to preach. I serve as a mentor and evaluator for these young preachers.

So I listen to quite a few sermons over the course of the 3-day festival from a variety of denominations. Quite. A. Few.

As an Episcopalian, in all honesty, our tradition is not known for its preaching. We have lovely liturgy, but our services are about word and sacrament, and for too long I wonder if we've focused on too much sacrament and too little word. I love our liturgy, and it preaches its own sermons without too much of our interference. Centuries of insight and legacy have given us our sacrament, and our job is to be fully present. Where our creativity and authenticity is needed, if not demanded, is in preaching the Word. Yet that seems to be the place we absolve ourselves of responsibility and offer sermons that are little more than filler between the Gospel and the Nicene Creed.

In all the reasons mainstream churches aren't growing, I've yet to see one that said, "dull preaching." But I wonder...

Have we gotten too staid about our preaching? Have we reduced the sermon to a last-minute task on Saturday night instead of realizing the awe and gift and outright call to be preachers in our ministry? Do we continue to develop our preaching, or do we figure that the one (maybe two) preaching classes in seminary did the trick? Here's a thought - they didn't.

Most preachers in my tradition do not preach from their feet. Instead, we preach from our head. Our intricate intellectually theological sermons too often resemble lectures rather than invitations to engage the Gospel.  Over my years of ministry, many sermons I've heard are just words strung together that are at best competent and at worst boring and uninspiring. Have you ever watched and felt the energy of a congregation when a great preacher is preaching? That, my friends, is the Spirit at work. And the Spirit of God is filled with movement and life and emotion.

Let me be clear, preaching is not an either/or. We do not choose between theologically sound sermons and heartfelt, emotional sermons. I heard tremendous theology preached by young women and men layered with emotion, with joy, with authenticity. Their sermons were engaging, challenging, and life-giving. They preached as though they stood in the pulpit with the same awe as if they were standing near a burning bush. They preached as if they let the words of Jesus to go into the world and preach the Gospel sink into their soul and bones. They preached from their feet.

Last weekend, I heard sermons that began with the Gospel of Luke's Magnificat read with a deep Appalachian accent, followed by words that brought the entire Visitation into a mountain cabin with a young girl in tattered clothing visited by an angel who probably wore overalls and drove a barely-running pickup truck. I heard a young man, barely a teenager, give such life to one of Paul's letters that I could smell the dankness of the jail and hear the chains as they rattled to life when the liberating earthquake struck. I listened to the voice of a preacher who challenged us to tell our story, and he told the story of the people of God from prophets to slave to freedom. He preached for almost an hour, and I was sad when he ended.

When is the last time you've heard a sermon preached for almost an hour that you wish could have gone for longer?

In response to the Gospel preached at the Festival, people stood because they could not sit in the presence of that authentic Spirit; tears flowed; "Amens" were offered; and hands raised to touch the heavens as our feet grounded us on earth. And we were gathered as one, praying with each other and for each other. We even blessed each others' feet.

The Gospel preached from our feet is not the Gospel of dry, controlled, rational love preached from layers of rationalizations and footnotes. It is the Gospel preached from our own wounds, our own deaths and resurrection, from our mind and heart, from the Word that has become flesh in our bodies and souls and given us life. That those who have been most abused by our culture are some of our most inspiring preachers is no coincidence.

The Word was made flesh. When we are called to preach the Word, do we allow it to become flesh, to become embodied with life and emotion, with joy and grief, with hope and challenge? Do we, as one preacher asked, read the scripture, or do we allow the scripture to read us? Do we dare have the courage to PREACH?

Do we dare to preach from our imperfect earthiness, from the voice of our deep soul, and from that which moves us?

Do we have the courage to preach from our feet?


1 comment:

Gene Black said...

I agree that preaching should NOT be dull. The Spirit is the breathe of LIFE and should imbue the Word with life as it goes forth. (I am an Episcopalian also- and I know that sounds scary to most Episcopalians) I love to see members of the congregation nudging each other and whispering insights during the sermon - although I know some of the congregation would prefer they sit still and be "staunch." There are a few of us in our choir who nudge, whisper and hug during the sermon when it speaks so strongly to us. I thank God we have a rector who preaches with sincere passion for the Gospel