Some encouragement for preachers

In Luke 12, Jesus tells his ‘little flock’ a number of things: He tells them (and here I’m following Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase) to not fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or if the clothes in their closet are in fashion. He directs them to look at the ravens, free and unfettered, to not be tied down to a job description, and to be carefree in the care of God. He commands them to be generous, to give to the poor, and to keep their shirts and lights on waiting for the master to return. To all of which Peter replied, ‘Master, are you telling this story just for us? Or is it for everybody?’ And the Master said, ‘Let me ask you: Who is the dependable manager, full of common sense, that the master puts in charge of his staff to feed them well and on time? Blessed is the person who is doing their job when the master shows up’.

In light of this Lukan text, Robert Farrar Capon (in Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus) suggests that preachers labour under three distinct requirements:

First, they are to be faithful (pistoí). They are called to believe, and they are called only to believe. They are not called to know, or to be clever, or to be proficient, or to be energetic, or to be talented, or to be well-adjusted. Their vocation is simply to be faithful waiters on the mystery of Jesus’ coming in death and resurrection. What the world needs to hear from them is not any of their ideas, bright or dim: none of those can save a single soul. Rather, it needs to hear – and above all to see – their own commitment to the ministry of waiting for, and waiting on, the only Lord who has the keys of death (Rev. 1:18).

Second, the clergy are to be wise (phrónimoi). They are not to be fools, rich or poor, who think that salvation can come to anyone as a result of living. The world is already drowning in its efforts at life; it does not need lifeguards who swim to it carrying the barbells of their own moral and spiritual efforts. Preachers are to come honestly empty-handed to the world, because anyone who comes bearing more than the folly of the kerygma – of the preaching of the word of the cross (1 Cor. 1:21, 18) – has missed completely the foolishness (mōrón) of God that is wiser (sophōteron) than [human beings]. The wise (phrónimos) steward, therefore, is the one who knows that God has stood all known values on their heads – that, as Paul says in 1 Cor. 1:26ff., [God] has not chosen the wise, or the mighty, or the socially adept, but rather that [God] has chosen what the world considers nonsense (ta mōrá) in order to shame the wise (sophoús), and what the world considers weak (ta asthené) in order to shame the strong. The clergy are worth their salt only if they understand that God deals out salvation solely through the klutzes (ta agené) and the nobodies (ta exouthenéména) of the world-through, in short, the last, the least, the lost, the little, and the dead. If they think God is waiting for them to provide them with classier help, they should do everybody a favor and get out of the preaching business. Let them do less foolish work …

[And thirdly], … preachers are stewards whom the Lord has ‘set over his household servants to provide them with food at the proper time.’ After all the years the church has suffered under forceful preachers and winning orators, under compelling pulpiteers and clerical bigmouths with egos to match, how nice to hear that Jesus expects preachers in their congregations to be nothing more than faithful household cooks. Not gourmet chefs, not banquet managers, not caterers to thousands, just Gospel pot-rattlers who can turn out a decent, nourishing meal once a week. And not even a whole meal, perhaps; only the right food at the proper time. On most Sundays, maybe all it has to be is meat, pasta, and a vegetable. Not every sermon needs to be prefaced by a cocktail hour full of the homiletical equivalent of Vienna sausages and bacon-wrapped water chestnuts; nor need nourishing preaching always be dramatically concluded with a dessert of flambéed sentiment and soufléed prose. The preacher has only to deliver food, not flash; Gospel, not uplift. And the preacher’s congregational family doesn’t even have to like it. If it’s good food at the right time, they can bellyache all they want: as long as they get enough death and resurrection, some day they may even realize they’ve been well fed. (pp. 243–5).

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