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Busy Bees

I’ve been preaching roughly forty sermons a year for the last decade. I preached around twelve per year during the three years before that. By my (admittedly atrocious) math, that’s in the vicinity of four hundred fifty sermons. Which is, I suppose, a decent sample size from which to extrapolate. To detect some trends, to observe a trajectory. Or, I suppose, to chart a decline, depending on your perspective.

As I reflect on if/how/when my preaching has changed over the course of my time behind a pulpit, there are some threads that run pretty steady throughout. The importance of loving God and neighbour. A Christian faith that goes beyond “stuff we believe in our heads” and moves with hands and feet into the broader world that God made and loves. An insistence on “upside-downing” our vision of church and world in order to more closely align with Christ’s. I don’t think I’ve changed much in thirteen years on some of this stuff.

But I suspect that in other ways, my preaching probably has changed. Certainly, during this pandemic, I have noticed a shift in my “homiletical disposition,” for lack of a better term. I’ve been talking an awful lot about forgiveness, grace, and mercy. About a God who “does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.” About a God whose love and acceptance is not predicated on our performance. I’ve spent almost zero time telling our congregation what we need to be doing more of—which injustices require our urgent attention, which political causes could use some determined energy, which private moral shortcomings need to be addressed, which troubling church trends need halting and how. I just don’t have the energy or the inclination.

I have at times felt that this probably makes me a deficient Mennonite preacher. Mennonites have always been fond of telling one another what we must do for Jesus. Our movement was born out of this radical idea that Jesus’ commands were meant to actually be followed not just taken as the background reading for Paul’s theology. Part of this resonates with me, has always resonated with me. What good is a bunch of nice-sounding theology that doesn’t land anywhere in the real world or in our real lives? What interest would Jesus have in us calling him “Lord,” if we didn’t bother to ask how this is lived out Even though none of my formal education took place in Mennonite institutions, I always retained enough of my Mennonite-ness to be convinced that these are important questions to keep on asking.

And yet, Mennonites have a rather dispiriting track record (we’re hardly alone here, I know). The history of our denomination is, in many ways, a history of splintering off into all kinds of little groups, each convinced that they are the ones who are most faithfully doing enough good things for Jesus, whether it’s living simply enough, shunning enough (and the right kinds of) corrupting evil, embracing enough of the dictates of progressive politics, fighting against enough (and the right kinds of) injustice, ratcheting up enough evangelical fervour, etc, etc, forever. We have a bewildering assortment of “doings” that we put into the “things we must do for Jesus” box, but the psycho-spiritual dynamic is roughly the same across the moralizing spectrum. Jesus expects us to be very busy bees indeed, and we have very often proven keen to pounce on anyone who isn’t measuring up to our preferred version of the busy kingdom.

It all just sounds so. utterly. exhausting. Again, this could be a pandemic thing. I have a strong suspicion that I’m not the only preacher whose sermons have migrated more toward comfort and hope during this difficult season. Part of this is pragmatic. It doesn’t really make much sense to tell people to get busy doing things for Jesus when, you know, we can’t really do much of anything. In one sense, this last year or so has been a kind of enforced sabbatical for many, even if it has been much more painful for some than others. And beyond the purely pragmatic, people are just struggling. Struggling people need a hope beyond themselves, not yet further exhortations toward behaviour modification.

I’ve also lived long enough, observed enough human behaviour, read enough history, etc. to know that the deepest problems we have as human beings will not be solved by more diligently separating the good people with the right ideas from the bad people with the wrong ones. This is something that our frenzied moralizing culture will have to learn—sooner, hopefully, rather than later. You can’t browbeat your preferred version of the kingdom into existence. People tend not to respond favourably to being hectored into embracing new perspectives of themselves, others, the world, God. I’m not sure when the last time you blamed, shamed, ridiculed, belittled, cancelled someone into embracing your views about race, sexuality, gender, climate change, theology, church practice, politics, whatever. For me, it’s happened approximately zero times in my forty-five years on the planet. Same goes for when the exhortative arrow is pointed in the opposite direction.

Every parent of teenagers knows this, even if said knowledge remains, embarrassingly, in the realm of theory rather than practice. The wagging moralizing finger is wildly counterproductive. It very often produces embittered children hellbent on doing precisely what has been enthusiastically condemned. The most reliable way to get someone to not change is to tell them that they must. And yet, our political, theological, and ideological discourse keeps plodding down this wearisome road. We seem to imagine that we, finally, will be the human beings who will, fully and finally, identify the sinners and consign them to the outer darkness, thus purifying the world and ushering in the kingdom. God help us.

In this exhausting cultural moment, it has seemed to me that we desperately need to hear from and to hear about a God who forgives all of our sin and stupidity, who loves us in spite of our weary cluelessness, who speaks kindness to all of our sadness and resignation, who offers grace in the midst of all our uncertainty and inadequacy. This probably sounds like a cop-out to all the busy bees for Jesus, wherever they camp out on the ideological spectrum. I suppose it has ever been thus. But to me it sounds like good news.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jimmy the Kid #

    Borrowing from a country song – I sure could use a little good news today. (LOL) I am sure thankful that the Bible is good news… good news not only for those who believe, but for everyone. I think we all want to embrace the abundant life Jesus promises.

    June 8, 2021
    • I don’t speak country music 😂. I guess I’m not only a bad Mennonite but a bad Albertan.

      June 8, 2021
  2. Thanks, Ryan. What a dilemma–not wanting the pathology of a guilt-driven frenzied religion of never doing enough for Jesus, but nevertheless admiring the sainthood of those activists whose inner sense of call drives them to “accomplish great things for God” as some evangelist worded it. How can you inspire the latter (whether by sermon or by example), without making people feel judged when they don’t measure up to whatever good example you’re holding out. How can you avoid the former, without lapsing into apathetic inactivity and contented inertia. The best way out for me has been to look hard at what really is driving me. Guilt, imposed or self-generated, kills. Love, received and given, enlivens.

    June 8, 2021
    • You’ve articulated the dilemma very well! Love the last two sentences.

      June 8, 2021
  3. Perhaps it is better to view grace and sin; mercy and judgement as reconcilable characteristics of God’s kingdom on earth, rather than the either/or narrative of much of your writing.

    Perhaps we don’t choose between different doctrinal approaches. Rather we are called to persistently and humbly approach the altar of God cognizant and contrite with regard to our own sins. In so doing we are healed, made whole…”though red as scarlet; made white as snow”…and in this way we are both recipients of His eternal mercy and potential conduits, for the benefit of others.

    It is true that judgement of others is a useless and counterproductive exercise that offends God’s mercy. It may also be true that unless we honestly and continually present ourselves as sinners before God, seeking forgiveness and reconciliation with His Spirit, our actions, however well intended are offending His judgements.

    June 10, 2021
    • I think grace and sin, mercy and judgment are absolutely reconcilable and I do not portray them as if they are not. This post was a reflection on our many and varied attempts to earn our way into the kingdom and of the fruitlessness of so much of our moralizing discourse. Nothing I’ve said here precludes the reality of judgment. It only asks us to take a step (or seven) back from being the ones to mete it out.

      I think my congregation would be amused to hear the suggestion that I don’t talk about the nastier parts of our human nature and the reality of judgment enough. Some of them think I talk about sin, repentance, confession, absolution a little too much for their liking.

      June 10, 2021
  4. Forgive the incoherence, I try to say a lot in as few words as possible these days, sometimes less successfully than I intend. 🙂

    There is, I believe, a false dichotomy offered everywhere today, both in, and about the church. That it can either be a place of mercy and forgiveness grounded in love or a place of cruel and unjust judgements requiring that we, as you say, “take a step (or seven) back from being”….

    It is neither of these places.

    Church is an opportunity, both at an individual level and in community, to encounter the living God. To worship, to adore to acknowledge our vulnerabilities and limitations and our complete dependence on God for the very sake of truth and real relationship with Him and as well, if real love, real justice and real mercy is to exist here on earth between us.

    Let us just be, “church”.

    Let us forge together true relationships with the living God. It is enough. it will take most of us a lifetime and beyond. Let us leave the debates and lesser concerns for those, who for whatever reason, choose to evaluate relationships with God, rather than be in one with Him. 🙂

    June 10, 2021
    • Church is an opportunity, both at an individual level and in community, to encounter the living God. To worship, to adore to acknowledge our vulnerabilities and limitations and our complete dependence on God for the very sake of truth and real relationship with Him and as well, if real love, real justice and real mercy is to exist here on earth between us.

      Well said. Couldn’t agree more.

      June 11, 2021
  5. Btw, I don’t, “speak” country music either…then again I hear truth in blues, western and folk genres all having historical attachments to rural America. I guess it often comes down to how you define things. 🙂

    June 10, 2021

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