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.