Monday, April 22, 2013

Preacher's Study - 5 Easter

Monday morning in the Preacher's Study

First thoughts about next Sunday's sermon (5 Easter Year C)
Todd Townshend

After the events of last week, especially in Boston, a comment could be made about the relationship between Monday’s “thoughts” and Sunday’s sermon. 

This blog is called “Monday morning in the Preacher's Study: first thoughts about next Sunday's sermon”, in part, so that preachers might be inspired to get their prayers, hearts, and minds going early in the week—so that we will begin to listen to the RCL scriptural texts six days before they are proclaimed in worship.

However, if a (North American) preacher actually completed his or her sermon preparation before 2:00 pm EDT on Monday last week, the sermon would almost certainly need to be re-written or significantly adjusted. At 2:49 pm EDT two bombs exploded, 13 seconds apart, on Boylston Street, near the finish line of the Boston Marathon—killing three people and injuring 183 others. These are some of the particulars of the event, and particulars change sermons. Generalized, “universal-truth” sermons are becoming less and less valuable to those who seek faith. Why the truth of Jesus Christ matters right now, this week, in the middle of this mess—that is what we want to know when the preacher stands to speak.

Nothing new here.  Events change sermons and sermons can change events.  It is really important that Christians, led by their preachers, respond to and interpret both the chaos and the beauty surrounding us. It is also important to say why—why we respond this way, why we see things this way. What can we believe about God in the face of this? Please!

I suspect that there were thousands and thousands of beautiful responses in the preaching yesterday. And for anyone who missed the opportunity, I suggest that this coming Sunday is not too late. Perhaps it is a chance to wrestle with this one: from Revelation. How does this vision make the difference, preacher?

"See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."

 And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true." Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Preacher's Study - 4 Easter

Monday morning in the Preacher's Study

First thoughts about next Sunday's sermon (4 Easter Year C)
Todd Townshend

Right in the middle of the Easter season, the Lectionary leaps from resurrection appearances to the tenth chapter of John and faith statements about Jesus. In that chapter we hear Jesus saying, “I assure you that I am the gate of the sheep” (v. 7). “I am the gate” (v. 9). “I am the good shepherd” (v.11). “I came so that they could have life—indeed so that could live life to the fullest” (v. 10), and this Sunday, in response to the question, “Are you the Messiah?”, we will hear Jesus say, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” (v. 27,28).

 These statements are taken from the life of Jesus and they are applied to the time of his resurrection life. It makes a difference to hear them in the season of Easter, now that Jesus has been crucified, raised from the dead, and seated at the right hand of God in glory. Jesus knows his followers and gives them HIS life in abundance.

Jesus and the Father are one (John 10:30). Together with the Spirit, the intimacy between them is unparalleled, and the “I am” sayings in John attest to this from many different angles. Preaching from John 10 does not call for simplifying summaries. A straightforward statement is juxtaposed with deeply symbolic ones. God chooses to give life to sheep and shepherd freely, persistently, and in the face of every challenge. An emphasis on the shepherd might help preachers to avoid allegories unsupported by these texts. This shepherd provides all and promises all. He knows his sheep by name, and is so desperate to give them life that he would lay down his own life so that shepherd and sheep might rise together. This is the way to abundance.

Could we think of this abundance of life as a conversion to the pneumatic/Spiritual life promised, won and given in Christ’s resurrection and ascension? If a sense of abundant life marks our conversion to God, we no longer seek some other kind of fulfillment or existential peace. How does this affect our mission as Christians? Is God’s focus merely me as “the sheep” or is it really the flock, or both?

The preacher this Sunday may want to proclaim that a full understanding of Christ’s abundance allows us to stop striving, to stop becoming idolaters, to stop setting up pet gods and instead accept the Shepherd’s care and presence, trusting the Shepherd to find pastures and protect the life of the flock. Abundance requires not vain striving but instead a joyful worship of God in Christ—a joyful mission, indeed. 

(This blog is adapted from the entry I wrote with Darren Marks in Abingdon Theological Companion to the Lectionary (Year A): Preaching Year ,  edited by Paul Scott Wilson. I can recommend this resource series very highly)

Monday, April 15, 2013

Baptism and everyday rituals of life & death

Baptism and the Wide Expanse of Life
Benjamin M. Stewart

“Baptism into Christ demands enough water to die in,” Aidan Kavanagh famously wrote.[1] Many newer baptismal fonts have indeed recovered the dimensions of the tomb (as well as emulating the bodily scale of bathing pools, wells, fountains, and flowing streams).

But even as fonts have recovered the capacity of the grave as living bodies are baptized into the death of Christ, actual Christian graves have receded from view. Memorial services without the bodily presence of the deceased are common. Increasingly, the dead have been “banned from their own funerals,” writes Thomas Long.[2]

For all of the attention paid in the liturgical renewal movement to the recovery of fonts that can evoke the realities of the grave, Christians have paid little attention to the grave itself—a liturgical symbol of astonishing importance and rich baptismal significance in the lives of early Christians.

Christian interest in death and beyond has not waned, as Rob Bell’s and N.T. Wright’s rankings demonstrate. But how can the rich theology and practice of baptism extend to Christian ritual at death? Can our renewed and enlarged practice at the font expand our sense of baptismal living and dying?

Perhaps Christians can learn from other groups recovering stronger rituals at death, like the recovery of the chevra kadisha burial society among the Jewish community (pictured below[3]), and the practices of natural burial among the ecologically minded (pictured further below[4])?

Here’s a question to stir the waters: how can an expansive theology and practice of Christian baptism expand our everyday rituals of life—extending all the way to our ritual at the time of death?


 Rabbis teach the practice of ritual immersion as part of the care of bodies at death.

The assembly lowers a simple pine coffin into the ground at Ramsey Creek conservation burial ground.

Dr. Benjamin M. Stewart is Gordon A. Braatz Assistant Professor of Worship and Dean of Augustana Chapel, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He will be featured as one of our plenary speakers at our June 27-29 conference with NAAC in Chicago, “Stirring the Waters: Reclaiming the Missional Subversive Character of Baptism.”

To register online:

For more information:

The following is the description of Dr. Stewart’s plenary session:

Matters of Life and Death
The Christian life begins with an embodied act that St. Paul describes as a “burial with Christ” in baptism. The renewal of baptism, then, reconfigures our patterns of living and dying. We will explore ways in which baptism invites us to honor our earthly bodies, reorients us to death, and welcomes us into abundant life.  

[1] Aidan Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism: The Rite of Christian Initiation (New York: Pueblo, 1978), 179.
[2] Thomas Long, Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 75.
[3] Photo by Michelle V. Agins, The New York Times. See Vitello, Paul. “Jewish Groups Revive Rituals of Caring for Dead.” The New York Times, December 12, 2010, sec. N.Y. / Region.
[4] Natural Burial at Ramsey Creek conservation burial ground, South Carolina.