Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Preaching and Third Rail Theology

This last week, I had a conversation I'd been anticipating with someone.   The question posed was where I stood on the whole "gay thing," and did I concur with my... um ... "evolving" denominational position on the subject?  And so we talked for a while.

I and my conversation partner did not share perspective on the issue, nor to my knowledge were any minds changed on the issue, but we did share prolonged conversation, and it was civil in disagreement.   Following the conversation, I found myself reflecting a bit on my own approach to preaching on the issues we argue about the most.   When it comes to the "gay thing," I really don't have it as a central theme of my preaching.  On occasion, I have.  I likely will again.  But it's not been a core theme for me.  Is this just pastoral wussiness?  Maybe.  But there are other things at play.

In part, this is because when I preach, I discipline myself to preaching from the fullness of the Bible. That means following the three year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary, which touches on the entirety of Scripture.   If you do that, well, the "gay thing" is just not a central explicit theme.  Our culture-war obsession with it is entirely out of whack with the narrative of Scripture.  On a verse-weight scale, it's of considerably less significance than menstruation, skin disease, and the sin of Jeroboam son of Nebat.

So on 95% of Sundays, I stick to justice, grace, mercy, and Christ's radically inclusive love for the stranger and the outcast, and let folks figure it out for themselves.

But in larger part, it's because as much as I value preaching, I'm strongly aware that it has limitations.  If you're in a community of like-minded souls, or a community that has formed around one strong personality, then you can get away with preaching whatever you like, as did that preacher in the video making the rounds this week.  You know the one, the guy who suggested that gays should be rounded up and sent to concentration camps.  Sigh.  I have it on good authority that he'll be obligated to spend his forty-seven thousand years in purgatory preparing and delivering graphic Powerpoint sermons on menstruation, skin disease, and the sin of Jeroboam son of Nabat to a bored throng of texting succubi.

Whichever way, preaching can mask the truth of an exchange.  You can pitch out your passionately held position, and be strong and outrageous about the things you're "agin", and everyone will laugh and say Amen, except for those one or two souls who are silently seething on the receiving end.  I've inadvertently done that on occasion myself, and when I've been called on it, it's been a convicting moment.

But in authentic community, we're not all identical.  There's difference.  And where there's difference, there needs to be openness and conversation.  Otherwise, you're just monologuing.  I know, I know, you need to stand up and be counted.  You need to be a prophetic witness, an overturner-of-tables, a declarer of the Way Things Are.

I'm perfectly willing to do so in my writing here, and in conversations, and in small-group study.   And in sermons, but only if there's safe space for difference to be explored and expressed.   In these places, questions can be asked.  Disagreement can be articulated and explored.  I prefer it because it is both harder and the risk is higher.   The risk comes when you look at the other with eyes that are not glazed-over with the scales of your presuppositions, and see the depth of common being you both share.   Are we willing to have our assumptions about others changed as we engage with them across the boundary of difference?

The hardness comes in taking that into account.   This person you disagree with is another soul, no matter how you may differ, and even if you are strongly convicted of the inherent rightness of your position.   And if you allow yourself to really see them, and not have your eyes scaled over, then it becomes considerably more difficult to view them through the polarizing lenses of our adversarial, binary culture.