So as I mentioned last week, I attended the Festival of Homiletics.
Before I get to that, I just want to say that I loved Nashville. They'll be dealing with the aftermath of the flooding for years, but at least the downtown areas that were hit looked good. My very first night, I went to a place called the Music Row Bar and Grill, which was advertising gourmet burgers. I walked in, and I was the only person in the place. I asked about the burgers, and the guy behind the counter said, "Let me tell you about this pasta I made today..." He went into describing the dish, and when he was finished I said, "Man, I really had a burger in mind tonight." Out of nowhere, the guy's wife yells from the basement, "He said he wants a burger!" Long story short, the guy gave me a "chef's sample" of the pasta, which was so good that I went ahead and ordered it. He and I talked for quite a while: he went on about his training as a chef and as a musician. I mentioned that I was from the Akron area, and he said, "I've been there. I didn't like it." Okay then.
Another night, I hung out with a college friend in the downtown area. We had Jack's BBQ, which was awesome. Another night we ended up at the Hard Rock, because why not. It was after we ate at the Hard Rock that I saw a brewery and restaurant right across the street, and I was immediately filled with remorse.
So, anyway. The festival itself. It was held at three downtown churches, but I spent most of my time at First Baptist Church of Nashville. Here's who I saw and heard:
Vashti McKenzie - McKenzie is a bishop in the AME church, and preached at our opening worship. She based her sermon on Exodus 14 and spoke about preaching truth to power. She of course highlighted the difficulty in such a task, and this quote stuck out to me: "We've ended up preaching Jesus rather than what Jesus preached. If we preach what Jesus preached, what happened to Jesus may end up happening to us." I think that quote highlights something bigger than preaching, but I'll let that go for now.
Anna Carter Florence - Florence teaches preaching at Columbia Seminary. She's new to me, but apparently she's here every year. She gave a lecture on Monday evening and also preached Tuesday morning. During one of these sessions she focused on "preaching like Mark," where she highlighted the Gospel of Mark's brevity, but moreso who he does and doesn't allow to tell others about Jesus. To a certain degree, she blew the messianic secret out of the water while doing so.
Anyway, she used Mark 5 as her text, and suggested that the three characters there-the Geresene Demoniac, the 12-year-old girl, and the hemorrhaging woman-could be preaching role models. The Demoniac is told, "tell friends what the Lord has done for you." The girl doesn't say anything, but her life becomes her message. The woman tells the whole truth to Jesus with fear and trembling: "You can't tell the congregation the whole truth about God until you tell God the whole truth about you."
Thomas Long - I also heard Long speak twice, in lecture and in sermon. First came the lecture, where he talked about Ecclesiastes and how "the writer of Ecclesiastes has his BS detector set on stun." He talked about the dissident voices in scripture, and how Ecclesiastes is a voice for people who "veto the liturgy because of their pain."
Later on, he preached on the collection of older folks who show up in the first two chapters of Luke, who sing the old songs and pray the old prayers and wait for what God is going to do.
John Bell - Bell was both a new discovery and a disappointment, though he himself did not provide the latter. Bell is a worship leader and scholar from Scotland, and was going to lecture on using imagination in ministry. Unfortunately, he was grounded in Scotland due to volcanic ash and Skyped his lecture. The feed was pretty bad, and became a huge distraction.
Susan Philips - Philips is a local church pastor from Wisconsin. She led a workshop on using projected images in worship. She began with the observation that we have a "visually astute populace;" that people are very tuned in to imagery. She stressed simplicity when using images in worship, and talked about her practice of "imago divina," her name for her process of finding images. She noted that images that tie in to the service in an obvious way are "visual cliches." She also noted that projected images can work in any worship style, and one just needs to be attentive to the specifics of the congregation.
I pause here to mention that Philips was the worship leader on Monday evening, and used this video as the assurance of pardon:
I think I might use this myself before too long.
Craig Barnes - I greatly enjoy Barnes' writings, so he was one I was really looking forward to. He didn't disappoint. He was another who spoke twice: once in sermon and once in lecture.
His first was based on Numbers 6, where "the rabble" complain about the manna. His theme was "preaching to the rabble." First, he described the rabble: how they have a low tolerance for discomfort, how they keep pastors in conversation with God. The Hebrew word for manna literally means "what is it?" To this end, Barnes noted that every day for 40 years, the Israelites were nurtured by a question. He suggested that pastors wake up every morning meant to ask, "What is it you are doing in the world, O God?" He also noted that the rabble is not impressed with this question; instead their favorite statement is "if only:" "If only we could [do something we miss from our 1950s version of church that is no longer viable]." In turn, the pastor starts reciting his/her own "if onlys:" "If only we could be more missional. If only I could go to another church. If only they could go to another church." In the end, he observed that pastors are tempted to think that we are the ones to get people to the promised land, when in fact that's God's job. Instead, it's our job to love them and show them the daily manna.
Barnes' sermon was based on Luke 15, where he talked about "preaching to the elder brother." He described the elder brother as the one who never left home, who never really got in trouble. He in turn asked how to preach to people whose sins aren't so obvious. He suggested that preachers essentially have two options: 1) Explain they actually are lost, which is a popular way to do it. 2) Make the elder brother sacramental. He noted that the elder brother's besetting sin is anxiety: anxiety about health, family, lifestyle. Sermons to elder brothers should be about choosing love over fear.
Lauren Winner - Winner spoke twice as well. During her lecture, she talked about how sermon preparation is a vital part of the spiritual lives of pastors. Essentially, she encouraged us to enjoy doing it rather than see it as a weekly chore. She suggested that sermon preparation can be a time of intimate prayer for and with the congregation as one thinks about connections specific members may make with the chosen text or what is going on in general among the people.
Winner's sermon was on 1 Corinthians 13 and was basically an endeavor to reclaim it in the face of sentimentality: "These words from Paul have inspired more kitsch than any other passage in scripture." She suggested hearing them in a different context, i.e., a hospital or prison. It was okay.
I would certainly attend this again. In fact, like I said, I think I'm going to consider making this an annual thing. In addition to many of the people listed above slated to return, Barbara Brown Taylor and Brian McLaren are already set for next year. There was so much that I found nourishing and rejuvenating at this conference that I actually can't fathom not going now that I've finally had a taste.