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Thoughts From Marva J. Dawn


Dear Friends,

Today's "thought" comes from a lady named Marva J. Dawn, a musician and theologian (with a PhD in Christian Ethics and the Scriptures from Notre Dame). At the time she wrote the book from which I will be quoting - "Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down" - she worked with an organization called, "Christians Equipped for Ministry." Admirably, as one who is herself wheelchair-bound, she has donated all the proceeds from the sales of her five books to charity. As a pastor I found her words today challenging. I trust you may find them challenging as well. Enjoy.


"Worship Ought To Kill Us."

"O God of earth and altar, in mercy hear our cry;
Our earthly rulers falter, our people drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us, the words of scorn divide.
Take not Thy thunder from us, but take away our pride.

From all that terror teaches, from lies of pen and tongue;
From all the easy speeches that satisfy the throng;
From sale and profanation of honor and the Word;
From sleep and from damnation, deliver us, good God."

G. K. Chesterton

"In a society doing all it can to make people cozy, somehow we must convey that God's Word, rightly read and heard, will shake us up. It will kill us, for God cannot bear our sin and wants us to put to death our self-righteousness. The apostle Paul exclaims that he has been "crucified with Christ" and that it is no longer he that lives, but Christ who lives in him. (Gal. 2:19-20). Once our worship kills us, we are born anew to worship God rightly. Everything we do in worship should kill us, but especially the parts of the service in which we hear the Word -- the Scripture readings and the sermon. One reason I especially treasure the Church's historic [service] is that so much of it is composed of direct quotations from the Scriptures which kills me every time I hear them. I get more comfortable under liturgies composed of human words that make it easier to escape the death blow and remain satisfied with myself... May God use this [chapter] to deliver us, as Chesterton prays, "from all the easy speeches that satisfy the throng" and the "profanation of the Word"...

We need not try to trace the trajectory by which God as the center of preaching has been lost, but those who notice that God is lost, and those who don't care, are busy doing the things that have caused the loss. An example of the latter is Christine Smith's "Preaching As Weeping, Confession and Resistance." The cover announces that readers will learn "Radical Responses to Radical Evil" as they encounter "Handicapism, Ageism, Heterosexism, Sexism, White Racism, and Classism." Smith is absolutely right that these "isms" are destructive of the Christian community and must be encountered and counteracted. I don't always agree with her solutions, but her analysis of the problems is astute. My objection is that the first word of the title is "preaching" but the book does not offer any sense that God is the center of it. The book's sample sermons confirm this. "Unspeakable Loss" (on Judges 11:29-40) weeps thoroughly over the pain women suffer. This pain is resisted in a Nigerian health clinic staffed by women. But there is no God in whom to hope -- and if I only hope in myself and other women, I will be disillusioned time and again. "Behold Crying Messengers," a sermon based on Mark 1:1-8, loses God more subtly. As it concentrates mostly on the messengers, God becomes virtually identical to the handicapped people who incarnate God's presence. While it is indeed the case that God is found incarnated in other people -- especially in those who suffer -- we dare not identify God with human beings. We need the hope of a God who is totally Other as the source of healing for our sufferings.

The loss of God as the center of preaching is poignantly described by H. Benton Lutz, formerly a preacher who says he is now sitting in the pew looking for the Gospel. "It has been strangely absent... In the church worn-out preachers too often preach worn-out words from a worn-out tradition to people who no longer expect to be challenged. What went wrong? Instead of trying to make visible what to many is invisible, the church has been about creating a fabricated reality, a reality of our own design. It is trying to be a force in society while ignoring the force of God already present and working in society. These pastors force stale, dry words into our heads rather than telling us stories of Scripture in ways that illuminate our lives. They do not crack the kerygma (text) open and let those stories spill over the real events of our daily lives.."

Keeping God as the center of preaching involves telling the stories of faith so well that God's invisible presence becomes visible, so that we can catch sight of God's intervention in the past and in the present. God was lost before in the Church's history; the Church recovered but it took a Reformation. When Luther fought the problem in 1523, he wrote that, "in order to correct those abuses, we know first of all that a Christian congregation should never gather together without the preaching of God's Word and prayer." Keeping God's presence central, he used the verse from Psalm 102 to describe what preaching does: "When the kings and people assemble to serve the Lord, they shall declare the name and praise of God."...


Preaching with God as the subject immerses us in God's sovereign Lordship, and the realization of that rule offers the genuine hope for which our society so desperately yearns... Why don't we thoroughly celebrate God's presence in our midst through his Word? Somewhere I heard that William Willimon tells of pastors who admit that the most terrifying moments in their ministry occured when God really did show up! What would happen if people in the pew really paid attention to what we preach and changed their lives? What would we do, for example, if someone greeted us after the service and said that because of God's Word through our preaching, she was going to sell her possessions, give the money to the poor, and serve in a [ministry to the poor]? How would we respond if the Holy Spirit killed someone right in the pew and his new life was utterly transformed into a deep discipleship of seeking earnestly to follow Jesus? It is good, as Lischer reminds us, that we cannot predict how the Word and the Holy Spirit will work in people's lives. If we could, we would try to manipulate the Word to accomplish our own purposes instead of being the Word's servants. We would advertise our own successes instead of seeking to be faithful stewards of God's mysteries.


If the Word does not bear its fruit and if the Holy Spirit is not seizing control when the pastors preach, it might be because they use the tools of our self-help society instead of introducing the God that changes lives... When God is rightly kept as worship's subject and object, participants character will be formed in response to God's. However, we live in an age of the "Gospel of Therapy." ... [Yet] Sermons cannot form the character of believers when sin is treated merely as an addiction and redemption is only therapy. The believers new life in Christ must be based on Christ's objective work of redemption, not on our experience of it, nor on a process of self-improvement or self-actualization... The essential goal of preaching is that the listener be transformed. Therefore, the new emphasis in homiletical teaching on the hearer as participant in, even shaper of, the sermon, must be held in dialectical tension with the biblical imperative to speak the Word so that IT can do it's transforming work. As Richard Lishcher concludes, 'the listener isn't king; God is."


I offer her words as food for thought. As a hope that the Word will be freed from the constraints placed on it when we try to make it say what we want rather than what it says. In the hope that the Spirit might move through the Word to kill that which needs to be killed in us -- sin, selfishness, self-righteousness, pride, godlessness, and those God-resisting attitudes of self-sufficiency and self-satisfaction -- just to name a few!


In the Grace of Jesus, Pastor Jeff

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