Dulling Down Pentecost
- William Willimon
- 2007 1 May
I tried to think of a more interesting title for this piece. Something catchy. I can’t. I fear that you have already lost interest in what I’ve got to say. I’ve only got a sentence or two to grab you by the throat, and here I’ve already expended four sentences, going on five, without catching your attention. Please, don’t change channels. I promise, I’ve got something pentecostal to say that’s interesting.
I recently watched a couple of hours of videotapes of our Annual Conference. It looked like octogenarians in slow motion, geriatrics in molasses, slogging through mud. What is there about church that slows to the pace of a slug? We think we look more pious when we decelerate.
Then comes Year B, the Common Lectionary, manic Mark, with his favorite word immediately. Everything heats up, gets frenetic, intense. Immediately Jesus did this; immediately He went there. Church, in Mark, is dull until Jesus shows up; and then demons scream, Jesus shrieks, and the staid, stolid religious folk mutter, “We never heard anything like this! What? A new teaching?”
Mark gets going by a descent of a great bird at Jesus’ baptism and a Jesus who is always mobile, driven by a relentless Spirit. You don’t have to suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder to read Mark’s Gospel, but it sure helps.
I worked my way through more than a dozen sermons I preached sometime ago. Most of them were biblical, somewhat well-illustrated, thoughtful. Yet too many of them were, in a word, dull. Though correct, they were characterized by a conspicuous lack of energy. They managed to present the gospel in a way that was strong on the ortho and weak on the doxa. Sermons that are intelligent but uninteresting are unfaithful to the weird wildness of the gospel that is induced by the dramatic, pentecostal descent of a big bird. With claws.
Say what you will about Jesus, nobody ever called Him dull. “Come, let us reason together,” was never said by Jesus. He more frequently screamed, punched, poked, disrupted, and dislodged. He told us that He hadn’t come to bring peace.
Isn’t this close to what Augustine meant when he taught that the purpose of preaching is to teach, to move, and to delight? I take back my nasty retort to the woman who said, after one of my sermons, “That was really…..entertaining.” I was offended. But she could have said worse. By the grace of God she didn’t say “dull.”
I don’t recall that Jesus ever made dullness a sin, but maybe—what with the things He said and the things He did—He didn’t have to. So I’ll say it: Dullness in preaching, church meetings, and magazine articles is downright sinful, an offense against Easter, a crime against the work of the Holy Spirit.
My first Sunday in
So when our president tried to chastise me for a wisecrack I made in a sermon in Duke Chapel, asking, “Why do you say the things you say in the pulpit?” I blamed it on Jesus. I explained to her that the Holy Spirit produces uppity, unconstrained, and destabilizing talk. Though unconvinced by my defense, she allowed me to preach on for another year.
Ron Heifetz (Leadership Without Easy Answers) says that a leader offers an organization pressure, stress, and energy. The leader does not come with the right answers but rather with the right pressure at key moments in the life of an organization, pressure that mobilizes the talents and insights within the group, that propels the group toward important, adaptive work. Pastors take note.
I witnessed this every Sunday in Duke Chapel when I watched the hands of our choir director. The maestro’s hands not only enabled the choir to keep up the beat but also to turn up the heat. The tension in his fingers! I could tell how strong the choir’s music would be that Sunday just by watching the energy within his hands. “I’ve got to show energy that’s up here,” he said, gesturing above his head, “just to get them up here,” gesturing at the level of his shoulders.
I remembered another musician, the new organist at my little church in Greenville, saying at the end of a service, “You did that baptism differently than I’ve ever seen a baptism done before. You led the liturgy like you expected something to happen.” Church lives under a threat, leading the liturgy, constantly glancing over our shoulders, that something may—by the grace of God—happen.
A distinguished homiletician advised us preachers, as we interpreted the Bible for preaching, “Look for the weird in a text. Stick with the weird—what’s discordant, disarming, strange and odd. What everybody already knows is dull. Weird is interesting.”
Such homiletical advice goes against how many of us preachers see ourselves, in relation to Scripture in the congregation. Sometimes we think our highest task is communication—taking the weird, resistant biblical text and dicing it, repackaging it, restating it, explaining it, contextualizing it, managing it so the congregation mutters in unison, “Thanks. At first I felt assaulted and threatened by the text, but after you got done telling us what Jesus should have told us (if Jesus had the benefit of a seminary education) it no longer sounds weird. It now makes sense. Thanks.” We reduce the living, moving Christ to the plodding and the predictable. Boredom sets in, dullness deadens us, and we pass that off as church.
A Duke doctor delightedly told me of his research that attempts to correlate high church attendance and good health. When he informed me that people who spend a lot of time at church report lower blood pressure than those who don’t, I got depressed and prayed, “Father forgive us, we don’t know what we’re doing.”
“I’m trying to achieve more balance in my ministry,” said a young pastor.
I advised, “Balance is boring. What we call balance is the illusion that we are in control of our lives. When you die, you will at last be centered, balanced, and at peace. You’ll get there soon enough. For now, you are alive, and you’re working with Jesus. Love the ride!”
Toward the end of his long Doctrine of Creation (CD III, 4), Karl Barth notes that part of the power of Sunday is its quality as “interruption,” its “strangeness.” Every week Sunday surprises us by disturbing our placid, tranquil lives with resurrection and the ending of time as we have practiced it. Sunday, in Barth’s view, is not so much a day of rest as a day of pneumatological intervention. “The church must not allow itself to become dull, nor its services dark and gloomy. It must be claimed by, and proclaim the lordship of God…rather than the lordship of the devil or capitalism or communism or human folly and wickedness in general,” says Barth.
Dullness is of the devil, the antithesis of an Easter faith and a restless, relentless Holy Spirit. This from the man who said, “Christians go to church to make their last stand against God.”
So I heard this sermon last week that began with, “Well, er, let’s get started. I struggled with what to say about our text for this Sunday. Let’s reflect for just a few minutes that…. I think the best way to begin is to say, in a manner of speaking, er….”
Three people keeled over in deadly stupor, hitting their heads on the backs of the pew as they went down. It was ugly, but the only interesting thing that happened during the whole service.
Why do Presbyterians have a Book of Order? It would take a stick of dynamite, or Pentecost, to disorder most Presbyterian congregations.
I’ve just had charges brought against me and some other bishops for allegedly violating some of the United Methodist Discipline’s provisions. The complaint charges that I’ve violated a rule. I say, “Me? Violate the Discipline? That’s preposterous! I love the Discipline! I rigidly obey the Discipline! It’s my most effective protection against the undesired incursions of the Holy Spirit!”
Happy Pentecost. Don’t let the Geist get you.
William H. Willimon has been thrust by the Spirit to Birmingham, Alabama, where he is being boringly a bishop of the United Methodist Church in North Alabama.