Many aspects of pastoral ministry are oriented in justice-seeking, in hope-phoenixing, in the hand-over-sweaty-hand work of healing the world. The gift from my ordination thirty-seven years ago I’ve kept longest is a folded piece of paper containing Marge Piercy’s poem, “To be of Use.” which says, among other wonderful things — “I love people …who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward, who do what has to be done, again and again.”
Among various ministries of justice, preaching the political, preaching to change the heart and change the world has always been central. It is also contextual. James Forbes, my preaching instructor, challenged us to give a congregation something that they – that congregation – could actually do. Do not ask nursing home residents gathered in their wheelchairs on Sunday afternoon to go out and march for gun control – ask them to go out and … roll.
I was powerfully moved by Michelle Torigian’s column here a few weeks ago when she reflected on the sensitivity required for preaching social justice concerns in a new parish rather than one in which the pastor has stood by hospital beds and gravesides, lifted babies in baptism, served at the ham and bean supper, and slept on the floor with the youth group. (These are my examples, not Michelle’s, – the last, not the first, is my ultimate gift.)
A similar sensitivity is one I face every week. Christmas Day, 2016, I retired from parish ministry. I still work as a writer and a facilitator for the New Hampshire Humanities Council and I’m a guest preacher. Every week. I counted only ten Sundays not preaching in the last year and a half. I truly love meeting faithful folks in so many settings (OK, and not having to attend a single meeting). Some pastors are on vacation and some recuperating from surgery or on maternity or paternity leave. Many churches are waiting for an interim to begin. Judicatory officials probably visit more congregations, but, when they come, it is usually a big problem or a big party. I come in ordinary time.
How does a guest preach justice? Usually I am told where the microphone and the toilet are, but I am never given an inventory of political hot buttons in particular congregations, although websites and facebook pages help. I am pretty sure the pastor or moderator trusts my sermon will not cause an after-vacation or pre-search crises. I also honestly believe that I could preach a sermon that was thematically “God loves you,” every week and someone would desperately need to hear it. However, the world and the scriptures call for a discerning voice to lift up God’s care for the most vulnerable and resistance against the forces of injustice.
I preach yeast.
No Sunday do I preach an outspoken justice theme. Every single Sunday I include an illustration or a paragraph of interpretation that challenges intolerance, racism, violence, greed and lifts up those who are least in the world. My illustrations on prayer are filled with immigrants and LGBTQ+ families. My interpretations of scripture reference Charlottesville and speak of forty boys killed in a school bus in Yemen. I name my own racism knowing it is as deeply present as it was for my civil rights marching father, whose language contained the n-word when Alzheimer’s stole his filters.
I also always make people laugh, usually at me, which is not hard, and often at my backsliding to live out a life of justice, say, trying to care for the earth when the president recommends gas guzzling (morning paper today) and how I cheat by taking some plastic bags from the grocery store because they are perfect for dog-walking. It is hard for a congregation to be offended at a preacher who confesses poop-scoop sins.
However, I would rather say that I try to preach yeast, rather than I try to preach poop. It was Jesus’ recommendation.
Maren C. Tirabassi is a UCC pastor and writer, also quilter, swimmer, hiker, lover of beagles, attender of science fiction and fantasy conventions. Most recent book with Maria Mankin and seventy-seven collaborators is A Child Laughs: Prayers for Justice and Hope. Maren blogs at Gifts in Open Hands.
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