Rev. Lyle McKenzie Lutheran Church of the Cross of Victoria
Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35; 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11
I want to begin by thanking you, the congregation, for the generous gift in celebration of my 30th Anniversary of Ordination to attend, with Lori, the Festival of Homiletics in San Antonio Texas, for the week of May 14 – 20. As I mentioned in the Crossroads newsletter, it was a rich and wonderful time at both the conference and as tourists in the beautiful and interesting city of San Antonio. Thank you again! We are blessed to be part of this community of the Cross.
And it should be no surprise that on my first occasion back preaching, I might refer to the festival of homiletics and the 24 or so sermons and lectures on preaching that I took in over the four days. (Lori was a little less enthusiastic, she attended two.) To quote a conversation long time presenter and well known author Will Willimon had preparing to attend the festival again this year: A friend asked what he was attending, Willimon answered, “A festival of preaching. More than 1500 preachers get together and listen to sermons and lectures on sermons four or five times a day for five days.” His friend replied, “That sounds like hell.” After a glare from Willimon, his friend asked, “Why would anyone want to do something like that?” Willimon answered, “Because they have to preach about Jesus to people like you.”
I can assure you it wasn’t hell. It was good and inspiring and challenging to hear and reflect on this calling to preach God’s word of good news in Jesus, and how and what the Spirit intends that to say and mean to good people like you.
It was also diverse. All those sermons, and lectures on sermons, and the people presenting them, were diverse. The theme this year was “Preaching on the Borders.” In San Antonio Texas, in the United Sates at this time, the theme of Borders was both metaphor and reality. One of theme readings was John 4, the story of the Samaritan Woman who meets Jesus at the well. I heard four different sermons on the same reading, and none were close to the same, in content or style or impact.
Sometimes the contrasts were immediate. On the first evening, the preacher at opening worship was Hebrew scripture scholar, author and teacher, Walter Brueggemann. Very much an elder but still publishing a new book most every year, he preached on an obscure and difficult text, which he often does, this time from the book of Judges (12:1-6) and paired it with 1Corinthians 1(10-31). I will not try to summarize his preaching on “Getting our Sibilant Right; the Evangelical Shibboleth.” But he offered insights into getting our words about God right, that seem more like foolishness, not wisdom and power, and to do so without division or boasting, but united in mind and purpose.
Brueggemann was followed by Rob Bell, bestselling author, and 2015 recipient of best podcast, he has a regular spot in a west Hollywood music and comedy club and tours around the world. He came out holding a microphone like a pop star, in low crotch skinny pants, high top leather runners, a white trimmed soft grey jacket that was small enough to be his confirmation suit, and very cool hair. The title of his lecture was, “The Whole Thing Is on Fire: A Few Thoughts on Cosmology, Photography, and the Science of Homiletical Pyrotechnics.” (Really!) I won’t try to summarize his lecture either. But despite needing to speak to us for over 30 minutes while technicians worked to fix a problem so he could show a series of pictures he wanted to talk about, he invited us to see the world around us “on fire” with images and insights into God so that if we pay attention as preachers, we never need lack “Having something to say,” over against, “Having to say something.”
Bell talked about being invited to the Festival for the first time and when he heard it was to speak to preachers about preaching, he said, “I am so there.” Then he learned he was to follow Walter Bruegemann, and he replied, “I am so not going to be there.” But there they were, one after the other, so different from one another, but there was a unity in their purpose, to faithfully proclaim God’s Word of eternal life. “And this is eternal life, that all may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
One more example. On Tuesday morning, at the first worship (at 8:30 am, no sleeping in at the festival) the preacher was Nadia Boltz Weber. A Lutheran Pastor serving the congregation Church of All Sinners and Saints in Colorado, she has “rock star” status in the preaching world, as much as that may seem an oxymoron, and a look to go with it. Heavily tattooed, muscular, a recovering addict, she is tough talking and uses language not typical in sermons. Her published sermon title was – “Returning to God with All Our Hearts – Even the Super Crappy Parts.” I would bet this was edited, because “super crappy” wasn’t the word she used throughout the sermon. I have quoted and spoken of her before. She is smart, honest, with insight and wisdom born of struggle and deep faith and a sharp eye and wit. It was an Ash Wednesday sermon calling us to know who we are, including the “super crappy” parts, and the gracious necessity of returning to God all dirt and ashes and dust that we and this world are having our hearts transformed through the loving acceptance of God and God’s people – as essential for preachers as anyone.
The worship surrounding the sermon was simple, even sparse, and it all finished just after 9 am. My plan was to go to the other venue for the next lecture, a 10 minute walk away. I arrived about 9:15 am and the worship there was still continuing. I slipped in the back and quickly realized the preacher, Vashti Murphy McKenzie, Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was just warming up. In the wonderful energetic and experiential style of African preaching, she was calling for response, “Amens” and “Alleluias” and clapping and more, repeating phrases and sounds as she raised the energy and enthusiasm, and the congregation encouraged her by doing the same. The young musician at the piano, was a great part of this, raising his hands and voice at different moments, and then playing a little on the piano to support and embellish her preached words. She told the same story standing in front of each section of the church, told it four times encouraging each group to respond with more enthusiasm than the last, all with the piano joining in. That story, of the antelope, that can leap ten feet in the air and 30 feet total distance from a standing position, but can be kept in a pen with a wall only three feet high – why? Why? Why? Why? Because it won’t leap when it can’t see where its feet will land. In the power of the word at work and working on and through us, we take that leap of faith.
The two sermons and times of worship were completely different, but serving the same purpose, God’s purpose of transforming lives and this world for good through the power of God’s Word of eternal life. “And this is eternal life, that all may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Can I hear an Amen to that!
This is Jesus’ prayer. In the long section in John’s Gospel of farewell words of Jesus to his followers – the first disciples and all who come after including us and generations after us, Jesus prays that you and all may have eternal life. “And this is eternal life, that all may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” This is Jesus’ prayer for you.
That Jesus prays for you, for all of us together; letting go questions of “To whom is Jesus praying?” in the uncertainty and mystery of the Holy Trinity, that Jesus prays for you and me, that means something, doesn’t it? No matter our circumstances, locations, callings, and how diverse they are, getting God’s words and our lives of wisdom and foolishness, right and not, together and not; paying attention and seeing, having something to say or needing to say something, or not; returning to God, super crappy parts, dirt and dust and ashes and all, and not; taking a leap of faith in the power of God’s word, and not; Jesus is praying for you, for me, for all of us together, for the eternal life here and now of knowing God and Jesus whom God sent. The word to hear today is Jesus prays for people like you and me, for eternal life. And Jesus’ prayer means something, changes some things, maybe everything. Amen. Alleluia!
And one more word about Jesus’ prayer for people like you and me. Jesus prays for our unity, that we would be one, as Jesus and God are one. That’s quite a prayer of Jesus, knowing all our differences and diversity, praying that we would be one in the Spirit. And that has to mean something, change some things, maybe everything in how we see others in our diversity, and this walk of faith and faithfulness together and our common calling and purpose to witness to eternal life, knowing God and Jesus, for the good of this whole beautiful broken diverse world of God’s, praying in that same Spirit of Jesus’ praying for you, for me, for all, that is our hope and our salvation together. Can I hear an Amen and Alleluia to that!