(The Revised Common Lectionary texts for this coming Sunday can be read here.)
“Before the Gospel is good news, it is simply the news that that’s the way it is.”
(Frederick Buechner, Telling The Truth:
The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale)
The news is simply the news. We bewail it, often, and call it bad news. We celebrate it, sometimes, and call it good news. But first it is simply news — it is what is, it is the life we’re living and the world we live in. It is first news, before we assign value to it or craft meaning about it, before we predict the consequences of it or strive to counteract it. First we have to know it and name what it is.
The vine of Isaiah 5 and Psalm 80 (in this week’s RCL texts) is simply a vine. Sometimes it yields a harvest. Sometimes it withers from devastation. How it grows and bears fruit in any given year is simply what is.
God in Jeremiah 23 and Psalm 82 is simply God. Sometimes God is intimately near, and at other times God is devastatingly far. Sometimes God burns with rage. Sometimes God relents with grace. How God is may seem to vary by season — judge or helper, lamenter or rescuer — but God is simply What Is.
In a world where news comes at us constantly, we are often quick to leap to values and meanings, sometimes before we even know all of the details of the news itself. Does it matter? As preachers, it is our responsibility to assess and assign value, to give meaning to news and interpret the Good News out of (and within and through) the news. But first — to lean on Buechner’s point — we must tell the truth about what is, we must speak honestly about the news.
Have you ever experienced a vine that seemed full of promise, only to have it wither too soon or to have a weed devour it? Have you ever been that vine, determined to bear fruit only to stumble & fail or to wilt from external pressure? Have you had this experience of God, alternately near and absent? We must preach honestly what is: the beautiful moments and the devastating ones alike.
When we are honest about the news, honest about what is, then we set the stage for telling honest Good News — as Hebrews 11 and Luke 12 do.
Because the writer of Hebrews speaks honestly of difficult lives and brutal deaths for people of faith across generations, there is no flippancy to be found when the writer outlines the meaning of those experiences: propelled by faith, the people endured. Because the writer of Luke says truthfully that division is the state of the world, the writer can be believed when warning listeners not to assign shallow peace to the life of faith.
To the extent that we preachers are willing to speak honestly of vines in all seasons, of faith in its highs and lows, of complicated experiences of God, we are better equipped to preach Good News — and better able to have the Good News be heard, especially that stunning Good News of a God who is undeterred by our highs and lows, who can coax fruit from a devastated vine, who can build amid days of destruction.
Perhaps telling the truth is less a recommendation for sermonic substance on my part and more an encouragement of preaching perspective: something needs truth in your context, something honest needs to be named and dissected so that the Good News can be heard, received, understood, and lived. What needs to be said? Where are your homiletic musings leading you this week?
Share your thoughts, blogposts, questions, and/or wonderings in the comments as we prepare to preach the Gospel this week.
Rachel G. Hackenberg is a United Church of Christ (US) minister, soccer mom, blogger, and author. Her book Sacred Pause plays with words to refresh our relationship with The Word.
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