This post continues a series of essays on preaching written by lay people. Other installments may be found here.
By Hannah Matis
A small lifetime ago — can it really have been only a month? — I was thinking of what advice on preaching a layperson could offer priests and seminarians. We have, after all, sat through more than our fair share of sermons, good and bad, and we all have our stories and our pet peeves, some of which come out of encounters with denominations without a lectionary.
It is my experience that ostensibly biblical, fundamentalist denominations in practice allow a preacher to concentrate on a limited, favorite selection of passages and to ignore the thornier, more complex aspects of Scripture. Luther’s bête noir, the epistle of James, is nearly always neglected, as well as the darker psalms. The balance of both overwhelming judgment and abounding mercy in the prophets usually skews one way or the other. We usually neglect the strong dimensions of civic responsibility, not to mention debt forgiveness and the welcoming of the alien and the stranger, in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible.
For all of the ostensible creationist emphasis on Genesis 1, we do not usually read it as the early Christian theologians once did: as a reflection of God’s deep involvement with a non-disposable creation, of God’s profound benediction over created, material nature, and of the intimate, sustaining role of the logos and the profoundly counter-intuitive logic of the Incarnation. And we have lost the entire patristic habit of wrestling with a scriptural text, like Jacob and the angel, until meaning and blessing emerges.
Of course, the Episcopal tradition has, or should have, absolutely no stones to throw in this regard. We have all heard sermons comprised entirely of personal anecdotes; I once heard of an Easter sermon which, in its entirety, was about the color yellow. A preacher’s job is to be the bridge between Scripture and the people, but it is very easy, in either direction, to become a bridge to nowhere. Sometimes great learning is incomprehensible, its practical application unclear, the preacher preaching for his or her own enjoyment. Sometimes priests assume that they know best what “the people” know or can handle, and then set that bar low, believing that what the congregation needs, first and foremost, is to have its collective hand held.
Certainly there are times and places for comfort, but when I have been asked to do parish forums I am often surprised by just how quickly parishioners’ questions turn to theodicy – the question of why God permits evil. Unrelenting gloom is obviously not the solution, but neither is a blanket of unthreatening spiritual vapidity. I give a priest-preacher full marks when trying seriously to engage with Scripture and asking difficult questions, even if I don’t always agree with the answers or the priest presents only the results of their own grappling. Jacob didn’t win his fight with the angel, we are told, but his defeat was an honorable one all the same.
Then along came coronavirus, hesitation, caution, and then outright closure of churches, in the name of flattening the curve. Like many educators, I am faced with moving the remainder of the academic year online. For clergy, it feels as if their entire job description has been re-written almost overnight. No face-to-face contact, no rounds of visits, with baptisms, marriages, and funerals under severe restrictions, the Eucharist celebrated online, and everyone, kyrie eleison, on Zoom; apocalypse with added admin. As a priest friend put it, “Civilization collapsing is something I’ve always expected, but I never realized it would require me to watch so many people with cameras pointed into their ears saying, ‘Is this thing on?’”
Part of the stress of this present moment is the strange combination of hurry-up-and-wait: the catastrophic news headlines, growing more catastrophic every day in the United States, the menacing uptick in the numbers of deaths, the panic buying, the unemployment and the gathering desperation, and for so many of us, childcare, home-schooling, and worry for elderly parents and friends. And for a lucky number, marathoning Netflix in pajamas and knowing, paradoxically, that the best thing to do is actually to do nothing. Nothing is something that most Americans are not very good at: our entire economic system requires us, when not working multiple jobs, to be, at the very least, watching advertising when we are not actually shopping.
Priests are chronically overworked people who are professionally terrible at drawing boundaries between their personal and professional lives, and who are often perversely proud of being busy. Now that structure has, for the moment, started to totter.
So how should one preach during coronavirus? Certainly we are amassing a wonderful list of things one ought not to do: the poor Italian priest who celebrated mass and unwittingly left on YouTube’s comic filters feature, or the priest who accidentally set himself on fire. At this moment, my seminarians are merrily compiling a formidable array of things not to do on Zoom: don’t leave your TV on in the background, don’t let every other electronic device in the room ping while you’re on a call, please don’t try to make eight people talk — or sing — at once and confuse the software. We now know all about your living room, not to mention your children, pets, or a spouse wandering by in their underwear.
The temptation for many of us is to use Zoom as a quick fix and a substitute for face-to-face interaction. I would argue that this is a mistake: there is a surveillance component to these conversations, as willy-nilly we watch ourselves and each other on screen, and it can be surprisingly exhausting. Moreover, wireless bandwidth has become an increasingly valuable commodity. Zoom’s security, as many have counseled or discovered in recent days, is not perfect and should be used with a similar degree of caution with which we approach public wifi.
Coronavirus has exposed the digital divide in American life: while we treat access to the internet in practice as a basic utility, it is too expensive for a significant proportion of the population who now, on lockdown, have no access to public libraries or other public resources. While it may be a useful tool in many ways, Zoom is not a one-stop savior for church and preaching in the year of coronavirus.
The Venerable Bede, in the eighth century, defined preaching in the broadest possible sense. In a recently converted or half-converted society, actions alongside words were necessary if the gospel was to be preached and to be convincing. Not only Bishop Aidan’s words, but the fact that he preached barefoot and that he preached to the poor in the countryside, won Bede’s approval. This is obviously not a perfect analogy to our situation, but it is a warning.
Covid-19 has, at least in my view, called out into the open the more gnostic, or mystical, aspects of American faith and belief. In one corner of the American church, there are those who act rashly in the belief that they are magically protected by the Holy Spirit — a case of putting God to the test, if ever there was one. In another corner, closer to the more Episcopalian, rearmost pew, can we hear an audible sigh of relief as we make all our worship one click away? After all, it is easier to ignore online obligations.
If, when we emerge blinking from lockdown some months from now, when online worship has become our new normal, will other forms of worship become dispensable, never requiring our physical presence or our social investment? Can we do Christian community from the couch? The inherent weakness of our sacramental theology, not to mention our mixed and vulnerable ecclesiology, our glorification of youth and celebrity at the expense of the elderly, disabled, and vulnerable, is laid bare. Now of all times, we should be proclaiming — robustly, and in any media form available to us — the resurrection of the body.
Preaching must wrestle with all of these huge, impossible, hulking angels: the importance of embodied, enacted liturgical ritual even when it is not possible now in its fullest form; the bonds of Christian community; the importance of every member of Christ’s Church; the equality of all persons as sinners held in and by the grace of Christ; opportunities even from the couch for practicing works of Christian charity in this never-ending Lent. We will need to preach a theological engagement with suffering and death that does not present them as mere hurdles to be got over but the field within which Christ does his most miraculous work.
We need, as N. T. Wright recently argued in an article in Time, to recover the scriptural language of lament, particularly from the psalter. Also, as Rowan Williams pointed out in an interview, what many of us are now experiencing is no different from how a significant portion of the earth’s population lives every day, and let us practice gratitude for the blessings that we have.
As preachers we do not have to have all the answers, but at the moment I am not sure if we are asking the right, or the powerful, or the difficult questions. The angel’s blessing upon a wounded Jacob, who has been permitted to see the face of God and live, is a new name, Israel, and a new destiny, as he steps forward to reconcile with his brother without fear.
Dr. Hannah W. Matis is associate professor of Church History at Virginia Theological Seminary.