Sunday, February 02, 2014

Preach?

Gave my first sermon today. Harder than you might think. Folks think religious studies is close kin to theology, but, at least as I've learned it, they're quite different orientations. (As Joseph Bulbulia put it once, "they study God, we study them.") And while I clearly have a point of view, organizing the interpretations of the Book of Job I present in my book, it is still an academic one: this is how we should study this, how we should understand it. A sermon speaks from within a faith position, and to a faith community.

So when I was asked if I wanted to preach last week at St. Michael's, where I was leading a discussion as part of their adult Christian education series afterward, I said no without hesitation. I don't know how to preach, don't know how to give the kind of reflection that begins with the words May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be always acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our sustainer. In the book discussion, somewhat to my surprise, I found myself focusing on my own understanding of the Book of Job, but when a parishioner started testifying to the necessity of reading the Book of Job through the figure of Jesus Christ I interjected that I'm a scholar, and that I don't tell people how to read the text but listen to the many ways they do, and to the evidence they give for their readings; I hear truth in many, from many different perspectives, and in my book share as many as I can. It was entirely appropriate, and impressive, for her to read it as many other Christians do; my concern could not privilege this or any other way of reading.

But today I was the giving the sermon, something I agreed to do because it's a little non-denominational congregation, and because I was invited by their part-time pastor, who happens to be a Lang alum, and on condition that he'd give me some pointers. We got together a few weeks ago and had a great conversation about preaching, and about the particular interests and concerns of his congregation. By the end of it I had a good idea of something I might talk about in and around Job. As the date approached, however, I found it harder and harder to finalize my remarks. What I'd planned wasn't in any way specifically Christian, though it noted, as I have done in radio interviews, places where a Christian might take a certain interpretative path. But was that enough, was that appropriate, even for a pretty free-form low-church non-denominational sermon?

In the end, I spoke (for precisely the 15 minutes allotted - I had my cell phone timer on) about the theology Calvin finds in Job, which it seemed I in part share. I got to choose the reading, Job 4:14-21, a terrifying one. At first I spoke about that, and about the theology which sees the gulf between creator and creation as unbridgeable even in thought; when we think of the view of God and look back, there's nothing left of us. But this is only half the point, for God does bridge that gulf, speaking to Job, acknowledging him, as Martin Buber emphasizes, as an individual. And yet, I said, the book doesn't leave us alone with God. The vision reported in 4:14-21 is in fact not Job's but that of one of his friends, Eliphaz. So I gave my usual shpiel (from the book) about how much more important the friends are, precisely as good friends who fail but are restored, than modern views of the "friends of Job" allow.

But then in the conclusion I found had to speak as a Christian, returning to the astonishment of God's concern for us, a concern which went so far as to take human form and live the terror and sorrow with us. (I didn't vocalize what I'd written in my notes: "as a human friend.") I concluded: "The Book of Job begins with one inventory of a good, full life – wealth, social standing, family – and these things are of course restored at the end; they’re important. But along the way the Book of Job also offers us another set of goods. A good, full life has a personal relationship with God, and surrounds us with friends to share the terror, and the astonishment, of being God’s beloved creatures."

So I guess Jesus peeked through for an instant, but only an instant. A start, I suppose! It'll be interesting to see how opportunities to speak to other kinds of groups and communities will shape or channel (or liberate?!) my thinking here.

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