“You want my tried and true maxim on preaching?” Professor Smith said, beginning to draw a diagram on the whiteboard. “You want my one rule about preaching?
“Say one true thing about God, then please – sit the heck down.”
Seven bright young first-year seminary interns are clustered around a too-small table. We’re in a classroom in East Atlanta, in a church made up of folks living in poverty with mental illness and intellectual disabilities.
“But how do you preach when the people won’t really understand,” someone asked Father Ben.
Father Ben probably leaned back and crossed his arms, because he did that a lot. He also probably snorted, because he was kind of over us, and our chipper academic interest in the Gospel.
“If you’re preaching to people’s brains, you’re doing it wrong,” he said. “I don’t just mean in this church. I mean in any church. You’ve got to find the Good News in the lectionary text, preach it clearly and simply, and call it a day.”
First of all, how dare you.
How else would we preach, without preaching to people’s brains?? We were a particularly intellectual group of interns, and this didn’t feel like it could possibly be a responsible way to exegete the text.
“These folks don’t need more lists of things to do, and they don’t need more ideas,” Father Ben told us while we sputtered at him. “These folks need the Gospel. Every time you preach a text, find the Good News and preach it.”
We don’t need more lists of things to do. We don’t need more ideas.
We need the Gospel.
The church I interned at was 60% people living with mental illness and developmental disabilities. Many lived in personal care homes, most of which were abusive. Some were homeless. After de-institutionalization in the 1960’s, there were no structures for people who were not welcome in a society built for winners – the powerful, the beautiful, the productive. Asylums were shut down, but the US didn’t built anything else. So folks with mental illness and disabilities live under overpasses and in “personal care homes” where unethical landlords take their government checks in exchange for bed-bug ridden blankets and physical and emotional abuse.
This tiny Episcopal church used to be for the very wealthy, but after the upper class abandoned the neighborhood in a wave of white flight, personal care homes took over the neighborhood. In the 70’s, the people living in the homes started showing up at church, and the rector, bless, accepted the Good News Gospel that this was his congregation now, and the church became home for all the people who “couldn’t understand.”
I interned there for a year. We played chess, played piano, and smoked cigarettes with the oddball crew on the back picnic tables, the sacred circle where church also happened. We listened to folks talk brilliantly about theology, then solemnly tell us that the government was sending them messages through their radio. We were loved deeply not for what we explained but for ourselves. We couldn’t hide behind a clever exegetical turn. We had to show up as we were, and learn to be loved that way. We had to learn how to accept ourselves without all the lies we were internalizing from graduate school – the lies that our true self was located in our awards, or our theses, or our stellar research. At the tiny church in East Atlanta, we ate dinner and held hands and told jokes and learned how to navigate the awkwardness of just showing up, as we were. It’s harder than it looks to show up, just as you are.
I remember one Sunday, during Father Ben’s sermon, a gentlemen in the back stood up, hollered, and pulled his pants and underpants all the way down. Without missing a beat, Father Ben said, Don, put your pants back on and sit down, this is church, and Don promptly did. Father Ben carried on preaching, as if a half-naked man hadn’t just made an appearance midway through the Gospel, as if nothing could surprise or disappoint him, if we were all exactly as we should be, even when we fell outside the rules that society gives us to maintain our anxiously curated self.
Which is, I guess, the Gospel.
At that church East Atlanta, and then as a chaplain in the sterile halls of the retirement and rehab community, I learned to preach the Gospel. I learned how to preach the one idea that was good news to the poor, to the struggling, to the ones who couldn’t understand, to the ones who couldn’t remember, to the ones who had lost everything. I learned to say one true thing about God, and then sit the heck down.
I learned that if you are only preaching a sermon you want people to act on and want people to remember, you aren’t preaching to their souls. We aren’t thinking machines or doing machines. We’re souls, which means our true selves are always small and always vulnerable. We need to know that God is with us, and that we are Beloved, and that we are Beloved when we do not understand and cannot act.
Unless you become like a little child, you can’t enter the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus told us, but we’re always trying so hard, so hard, to avoid being children! We’re trying so hard to avoid feeling small! We preach long, fancy sermons with to-do lists, with rules, with big theological concepts because we’re so scared of being our true selves. We’re putting stones on top of stones in Babel, trying to reach heaven, because we’re scared that without our fancy ideas or heroic actions, we won’t belong, we won’t be Beloved, we won’t be enough.
But as Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche says – at our core, we’re children. It’s only when we understand that we’re children, children lost in the dark who need each other, that we’ll feel the Good News of Jesus Christ in our bodies.
God knows we are only dust, the psalmist tells us, but do we know we’re only dust? Can we take comfort in it as a promise, instead of shrinking from it as a threat?
Can we come with our small and vulnerable selves to God, instead of coming puffed up with talents and brains and words and deeds? Can we come empty handed – not knowing, not understanding, not trying to save the world – and hear the Gospel?
The Gospel that you are so small, Beloved, and so loved?
If I had to say what the Gospel is – what the one true thing about God is – and then sit down, it would be that we are so small, and we are also so loved.
I spend so much time trying to act, trying to understand, and trying to remember. I spend so much time trying to escape the terrible and wonderful truth that I am small.
The Gospel, though, is a blessing for the meek, the poor, the mourners, the persecuted, the ones who don’t understand, the ones who have failed, the ones who tried to climb the Tower and fell off halfway up. Or maybe didn’t even get halfway.
We are so small. We are so loved.
We’re not loved despite our smallness, or once we’ve pretended to shuffle it off, but inside the smallness itself. Our smallness is our true self. Our vulnerability is who we are.
And it’s safe to be small and vulnerable with God. Our weakness won’t be exploited by our God, but entered into by our human Savior.
You are so small, Beloved. You are so loved.
This is the Gospel.