Wednesday was a day of more inward focus for me at Metropolitan AME. The sermons and lectures I heard were no less focused on justice, nor did they neglect the people we serve. But each speaker moved me to consider my own holistic ministry practice in a meaningful way.
Sadly, I missed what I heard was an excellent sermon by Dr. Moss because I was finishing a paper. Finals don’t wait, even for great preaching! I’m grateful that Jenn was here to offer updates. But I did make it down the block in time to hear Rev. Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Theological Seminary. As it turns out, it would be a day of demons.
The Gospel of Mark is, unsurprisingly to seminarians, full of demons. Chapter after chapter: demon, demon, demon. For this sermon, we focused on the demon whom the disciples couldn’t exorcise from the boy. Dr. Barnes pointed out how clearly Mark is telling us a truth about Jesus, with chapter after chapter of demons: if you’re serious about following Jesus, he is always going to lead you into places with evil that is crippling people. And, if you hurry there, don’t be surprised when Jesus just keeps walking. Jesus doesn’t hurry; it’s on us to match our pace and timing to his, lest we miss an opportunity to heal.
The other important lesson is that the disciples couldn’t cast out the demon. Jesus said, that kind could only be cast out through prayer. We too need to realize that we aren’t Jesus, and stop trying to be! Our job is to bring others to Jesus as he tells the disciples to do. Through prayer, and yes through preaching, we are ordained to lead our people into the presence of Christ, the one who can heal them.
We closed the morning with a lecture from Maria Teresa (MT) Davila, a Christian ethics professor, who laid out a compelling image of a political theology of the sermon–how and why to make preaching matter. As an ethicist and not a homiletician, Professor Davila’s theology begins in the margins of society rather than the text. We must have authentic encounter with those in the margins, to learn about their struggles but more importantly to share the weight of their vulnerability. Theology in the public sphere, she posits, is today’s mission field.
Once we know the struggles, our job is to name them–to shine a light on policies and practices that “keep crucified people on the cross.” We must risk–be vulnerable to–unpopularity, attrition in membership and giving, and even violent responses to our proclamation. But for those who remain, our truth-telling in preaching must drive the people into the streets to put love and justice into practice. This is something I’ve had the blessing to see firsthand once or twice, but Professor Davila’s lecture reminded me how much further I need to move toward authentic encounter with all of the marginalized in my community. Only then can I truly preach justice and love, and not just pretty words.
With all this churning in my head, I went to McPherson Square to check out the food trucks for lunch. I met up with Sophie, my beloved great-great-grandlittle in DZ, and we sat in the grass eating Ethiopian food. I figured I’d work off the injera with all the walking this week! It was great to see her, and to have time to process.
The afternoon provided more personal challenge. Dr. Barnes returned for a lecture and went back to the theme of anxiety, which Dr. Brueggemann had shared with us on Tuesday. Dr. Barnes explored Jesus’ temptation after 40 days in the wilderness, peeling back each temptation to what deep need “the devil” was really targeting: the need to not be hungry, or to silence our yearnings; our need for certainty and to be necessary; and the need to reach our ends by any means, which tempts us to become complicit with life-stealing power. The second point resonated most with me: how do we chase after being “necessary” as an empty substitute for what we are – cherished of God? Dr. Barnes shared a thought that many seminarians may have at one point or another: “I thought when I came to seminary, it’s because God needed my help.” That rationale is what traps us into working long past our set hours; taking phone calls on Sabbath, or just not taking a Sabbath at all; and crossing every boundary out of the anxiety of being necessary.
I am done being necessary.
The afternoon wrapped up for me with a perfect opportunity to reflect: a contemplative worship led by Fr. Richard Rohr, who took us back one more time to demons. This time, we met the first demon in the synagogue. Why is the demon in the synagogue? Because, as a system of power, the synagogue has denied the presence and disguised the reality of evil and thus allowed it to flourish. We too must recognize systems that deny and disguise evil, those “too big to fail,” including our own churches, as potential incubators of evil–what Mark calls the demonic. We have to catch and name evil before the system can deny, disguise, and distribute it. We truly must be sly as serpents, able to recognize evil, but gentle and incorruptible as doves.
The service of silent, meditative prayer and chimes drove home for me that only through our own intentional spiritual practice will we be empowered to stand against evil and centered enough in Christ to see it at all. Seminary is a dangerous time in our spiritual lives for this reason: we learn to exegete better, to preach better, to administer better, but if the academic is allowed to replace our personal spiritual connection to God then we too are in danger of taking the Good News and making it bad.
I understand the wisdom of intentional Sabbath now in a way that almost connected before, but not quite. If we are truly out of time to pray, then we are no longer leading our congregations to Jesus–even if we say all the right words. Thank God I meet with my spiritual director next week!
If you’re following along with the festival journey, I invite you to join me in building stronger spiritual practices this summer, when our schedules crack open just a touch. Let’s find new ways and reclaim old ways of capturing Sabbath moments, ways we can take with us into the rush and busyness of a new school year. We are not too big to fail, so we need to submit to the love and rest we preach to everyone else.