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First Thoughts: Epiphany 4B

Some weeks are better than others. Last Sunday we preachers were tossed a softball—the compelling and rich account of Jesus calling four disciples from their fishing boats at the Sea of Galilee. It’s a fun story to preach, with lots of beautiful imagery as well as some easy cultural entry points (Kim Kardashian, anyone?! No? Maybe that was just me…).  This week, we’re not so lucky. In the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, we find Jesus in the Temple, doing something distinctly non-Mainline Protestant: casting out “unclean spirits.” Yikes.

Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching– with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. (Mark 1:21-28 NRSV)

When I encounter texts like these, my mind immediately starts doing some gymnastics. Here are a few examples of the questions that can preoccupy me:

  • What was/is an unclean spirit?
  • Do I believe in unclean spirits??
  • Does my congregation believe in unclean spirits???
  • If I try to “explain away” the unclean spirit, what am I left with????

Here, we arrive at the problem of “explaining away” a biblical text and/or part of a text. Today’s Christians read the Bible through the lens of a post-Enlightenment worldview (let’s not even mention a post-modern worldview). We can’t help it. We know all about the scientific method, about physiology, and—most of all—about empirical reason. An “unclean spirit” can be a real problem for us because we don’t know exactly what it means in the context of the gospel, but we feel compelled to find a scientific explanation for what Jesus was dealing with in the Temple that day. Is an unclean spirit kind of like a mental illness? Is it a physical malady, like epilepsy? We want to know because we want the story to fit into our worldview.

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Sermon: Proper 13A

A little bit later than I would have liked, here is last Sunday’s sermon. You can find the propers for 13A right here.

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Last Sunday was a feast for preachers. The Gospel text was Matthew 14:13-21, when Jesus and the disciples feed the multitude with bread and fish. The Old Testament reading was Genesis 32:22-31, the mysterious story of Jacob fighting with a stranger through the night. In the end, I decided to focus on Jacob.

You can read the whole text of the sermon after the jump.

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Preaching Don’t #1

As part of a preaching class I am teaching for my Diocese’s school for Shared Ministry,  I am compiling a list of things that a preacher shouldn’t do in a sermon. Here is one of them…

Preaching Don’t #1: Don’t preach a sermon about being a preacher. 

My undergraduate degree is in Creative Writing. During my studies, I remember developing a strong distaste for poems about poetry…or about writing poetry…or about being a poet. They just had too small of a reach and struck me as being a little navel-gazey. But there were inevitable days when I had a poem due for class and found myself staring at a blank piece of paper, bereft of inspiration or something interesting to write about. In those moments, it became incredibly tempting to write a poem about writing poems, because that was what I was struggling with in the moment.

The same thing can happen to preachers. A great deal of our interaction with scripture happens within the context of sermon preparation, and some of our identities as Christians is tied up with our identities as preachers. But here’s the thing: Our congregations do not have the same luxury that we do to sit around and think about the Gospel and about God pretty much all day long. They have real jobs.

Preaching about preaching (or about sermon preparation or ordained ministry in general) sells a sermon short in a few ways:

  1. …it sets preachers up as being seen as the “most important” Christians in the room. We want our parishioners to feel empowered to struggle with scripture on their own. When you preach about preaching, it “professionalizes” scriptural reflection and can alienate lay people from engaging God’s word on their own.
  2. …it can make you look out of touch. You are a preacher who can only talk about preaching? Lame.
  3. …this is a little different: When you begin a sermon by talking about all the ways that you struggled with the text you are about to preach on, you undermine your authority in the pulpit and weaken everything else you are going to say. Brand new preachers do this all the time, and it is a dead giveaway that you are unsure of your own preaching voice.
So there you go, Preaching Don’t #1. What have you learned to avoid as a preacher? What do you think that new preachers should know before they ascend the pulpit?

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

When is it okay to recycle a sermon? By that I mean, under what circumstances is it allowed–or even advisable–to preach a sermon that you wrote in the past and (ideally) delivered to a different congregation? As a relatively new preacher, I don’t have to consider this question very often, but I imagine that preachers who have been in the game for a while regularly struggle with the temptation of digging through their old files and pulling out a gem from the past. For those of us who work with a three-year Lectionary cycle, you only have to have been around the block a few times before finding yourself face-to-face with propers you have preached on before.

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I have only been in this situation a few times myself, and today was one of them. I’m preaching this weekend and I finally got around to looking at the assigned texts this morning (for shame!). I was happy to find that the Old Testament reading, Genesis 32:3-31, happens to be one of my favorite Biblical stories–Jacob wrestling with God on the banks of the Jabok. Immediately I remembered a sermon I preached on this text a few years ago when I was in seminary.

Overcome with the sweet temptation of a free Friday night and a ready-to-go sermon, I searched through some old papers and found the document in questions…and hungrily read it…and then put it right back where I found it.

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Welcome!

Welcome to The Baby Preacher, a new blog written by and for folks just beginning their preaching ministries.

I am a twentysomething Episcopal priest currently serving as associate rector at a large parish in the Midwest. Two years into my ordained ministry, I have a lot of things on my mind…

What exactly am I doing?

What does my ordination mean?

What is God calling me to do right now? Next?

These are kind of big, boring,  existential questions, and I spend a lot of time (admittedly, too much time) thinking about them. Of all the issues surrounding my ministry and my life as a priest, one of things that I reflect on the most is preaching. I am simultaneously enchanted and terrified by the act of climbing into the pulpit (and everything that leads up to that moment), and I love to think, read, and talk about the challenge that each new sermon poses and the goals that I have for my own growth as a preacher.

Now, here’s the problem: I might love to think, read, and talk about preaching, but I can’t bear the idea of boring any of my real-life friends with this type of chatter. In addition to being a priest, I am also a single girl in a new town who is trying to make friends…I can’t bring this kind of conversation to a cocktail party. So instead, I’m  bringing it here.

Stay tuned for more posts on preaching, and join the conversation!

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