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Because the baptized people in a congregation are called peculiar, the preacher needs to address them with "peculiar speech, " letting the Biblical text call them to live a transformed life in keeping with the baptism. Includes three powerful baptismal sermons.
When nothing existed but chaos,
you swept across the dark waters
and brought forth light.
In the days of Noah,
you saved those on the ark through water.
After the flood you set in the clouds a rainbow.
When you saw your people as slaves in Egypt,
you led them to freedom through the sea....
In the fullness of time you sent Jesus,
nurtured in the water of a womb.
He was baptized by John and anointed by your Spirit.
He called his disciples
to share in the baptism of his death and resurrection
and to make disciples of all nations.
(From the "Thanksgiving Over the Water,"
The United Methodist Hymnal, p. 36)
I want to look at preaching through baptism. The preacher is the one who, in service to the church, strikes the rock and brings forth water in dry places.
In Egypt, we thought our problem was our need for liberation. But once liberated, free, we were thirsty; at least Pharaoh gave us water and three square meals a day. And we murmured against Moses, asking, "Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children ... with thirst?" (Exodus 17:3). Slavery began to look good. Most of the really stupid things we have done in our history are attributable to our seemingly unquenchable thirst.
And Moses asked, "What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me" (Exodus 17:4). And Yahweh told Moses to take the rod, the same with which he struck the Nile, and strike the rock at Horeb. And Moses did so, and there was water. And Moses named the place, among other things, Massah because there, in water, the people received response to their question, "Is the LORD among us or not?" (17:7).
Whenever we gather on Sunday, that is still our question. Is the Lord among us or not? We thought that our problem was our need for freedom, for liberation. No. Our problem is thirst. Our controversy is over appropriate ways to quench thirst. And every Sunday the preacher strikes the rock and there is water, things are brought to speech, and silence is broken. The Lord is with us.
In his book Homiletic, David Buttrick notes how a preacher's speech will be determined, to a great extent, by how the preacher defines the congregation to which the sermon is addressed. Buttrick characterizes the congregation as having a "double consciousness":
On a Sunday morning congregations are constituted in liturgy as "people of God" and, in fact, within the symbolic structures of liturgy understand themselves so constituted. At the same time, we know we are "in the world" and share worldly ways of understanding. Thus, because we are "in but not of the world," preaching will have to speak to a double consciousness. Theological reality is primary, thus preaching will be explication, a "bringing into view" of our common faith. At the same time, because awareness of being-saved involves a distinguishing of Christian faith from understandings of the world-age in which we live, the language of preaching will wrestle with ideas, assumptions, social attitudes which we bring to church. If preaching does involve conversion, it is the constant conversion of Christian formation. In a worldly language, preaching shapes the faith-consciousness of the church.
Much of the preaching I hear, and much that I do, appears to be more aware of the second aspect of Buttrick's doubly conscious congregation. We speak as if we were speaking only to people in the world. Our "worldly language" doesn't produce Christian formation. In this book, I want to explore what it means to preach on Sunday amid the baptized. What difference does it make to our preaching that all of us there are either preparing for baptism or else trying to figure out what happened when we were baptized? Either the listeners have already accepted this radical, peculiar, distinctive identity and vocation or they are being invited to do so. We preach either under the promise of baptism, "Come forth, be washed, and you shall be odd," or the mandate of baptism, "You are washed, you are ordained, you are odd." Do we preachers appreciate the baptismal, liturgical quality of our speech?
It has long been said by the church that, because worship is an act of the church, and because the church is before all else a community at worship before God in Christ, worship precedes theological reflection and subordinates it. Worship is not an "authority" or "source for theology"; it is the ontological condition of theology, the font out of which proper understanding of the kerygma (proclamation) arises. This was expressed in the old patristic position, Legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi. (The law of prayer precedes the law of belief.)
The church's worship is nothing other than the church's faith in motion, both in its most sublime and on its most practical levels. The worship of a church does not merely reflect the church's faith but actualizes it concretely in a sustained manner across the generations and in an irreducible way. Worship is the scripture's home rather than its stepchild. The Bible is the church's first liturgical book. Preaching is best conceived of as an act of worship, the precedent of and a commentary upon baptism.
To speak among the baptized, those who are dying and being raised (Romans 6:4), is to enter into a world of odd communication and peculiar speech. Baptismal speech need not conform to the reasons of this world (Romans 12:2). Conversation among the baptized is ecclesial in nature, political. A peculiar polis is being formed here, a family, a holy nation, a new people where once there was none (the images are all baptismal, 1 Peter 2:9).
Forgetting the baptismal context of our preaching, we risk distorting the gospel into an intellectual dilemma: how can modern, twentieth-century people believe a first-century Jew? It becomes a matter of subjective affirmation ("this seems right to me"), or of nodding whenever our particular gender, racial, or cultural button is pushed. But the gospel is none of these.
Rather, in baptism, we are subsumed into a story of water and the word. A story of creation formed out of dark waters. A story of a God so righteous that he was willing to make war on the world he created, only to hang up his bow and to promise never to give up on us again. A story of a people, created out of nothing, by a God determined to be worshipped rightly, led through waters into the desert as imperial chariots foundered. A story of a Jewish woman visited by God in a way that confounded her fiancé but caused her to sing. A story of a crazy man out in the desert proclaiming a new kingdom coming in water and fire. A story of one who saved by an issue of water and blood.
As Augustine noted, water is water. "The word is added to the element, and there results the Sacrament, as if itself also a kind of visible word." Water set next to the word, next to this story, is called baptism. Luther, following Augustine, emphasized that baptism "is not merely water, but water used according to God's command and connected with God's word."
Christian preaching brings out or brings into view the mystery inherent in the waters of baptism. Baptismal preaching names the reality to which we have all been exposed, that is, the peculiar salvation of this crucified God. Therefore baptismal preaching is not so much a matter of being didactic, of explaining something, as it is of testifying to something, struggling to describe an event that has already happened to the congregation, bringing into view the significance of our baptism with words.
The theology of the church is the church's attempt to speak of the change wrought in itself through baptism. As Thomas C. Oden has said, "Christian theology fundamentally began as a lengthy set of footnotes on the baptismal formula which preceded all deliberate Christian doctrinal formulation. All the heresies against which early pastoral care had to struggle were essentially offenses against the baptismal formula."
One of the reasons why "the language of preaching is essentially metaphorical" is not just that people enjoy the use of metaphor but rather that an act like baptism sets the tone and determines the mode for Christian communication. Speech must fit that which it attempts to describe.
To preach among the baptized or the being baptized is to operate within a domain of distinctive discourse. We talk differently here, work within a certain "language game" to which everyone here subscribes for the duration of the conversation. The language is rooted in the elemental narrative testimony: "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:3-4).
A distinctive identity arises from this distinctive community of discourse. There is politics in our preaching. I am troubled by preaching that won't come clean on its politics. We speak of expository preaching, or narrative preaching, story preaching, inductive, deductive preaching as if preaching were mainly a matter of method, of style, as if nothing political were at stake in the mode of our communication, as if no particular people were congregating due to our speaking, as if being Christian were synonymous with being a good human being who speaks conventional imperial English but with a certain accent.
No matter our style of preaching, there is no way for us preachers to weasel out of the baptismal truth that we preach within a distinctive universe of discourse. We talk funny.
Last fall we had a panel discussion on "Homosexuality and the Church." (Who told us to call people "homosexual"? A nineteenth-century Viennese psychotherapist who wrote a book arguing that there were males, females, and a third sex, homosexuals. What on earth are we talking about when we talk this way? Why would the church be interested in such labeling of people?) After the discussion, a young man came up to me saying that he was "a baptized Episcopalian" and "none of you have a right to tell me who I am. I define myself."
I noted that if his first declaration were true ("I am a baptized Episcopalian"), his second was false. In baptizing this young man the church was quite clear, or at least should have been clear (false advertising is so wrong), that we were telling him who he was, namely a cherished child of God who was washed, gifted, chosen, called, and named.
Not knowing who names us is a tragic plight. The uncalled life is an empty one. Identity is too important a matter to be left to individuals. Why we believe this to be true requires the telling of a story that is baptismal.
Our speech becomes corrupted, not only by Viennese psychotherapists but also in church assemblies. What are we to do with a church that speaks to people on the basis of their gender or race, all the while baptizing them on the basis of Galatians 3:28? "Before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint.... But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian.... For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:23, 25, 27-28, RSV).
When Christians are invited to say something about social justice, we begin by saying "church," which is to say "baptism": "For indeed we were all brought into one body by baptism, in the one Spirit, whether we are Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and that one Holy Spirit was poured out for all of us to drink" (1 Corinthians 12:13, NEB). Poured out for all to drink, no matter race, gender, class, or sexual orientation. "Now that faith has come" (Galatians 3:25) we speak differently to one another than when we were kept under restraint by the custodian of quotas, gender issues, and ethnic pride.
In the words of John Alsup, by these baptismal texts "we are invited to imagine the New as life in the flesh where the latter is not the dominant reality for the people of faith." In baptism, it is not so much that worldly labels like race or gender are washed away as that we recapitulate creation and become new as if in the primal waters of creation, dying to our old selves and rising to newness of life.
We preachers need not be embarrassed by the distinctiveness of our speech. It is rooted in primordial narrative. "The sea roared," "the wind of God moved over the face of the waters" (Genesis 1:2). "The waters prevailed.... everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died" (Genesis 7:20, 22, RSV).
At the university, when we attempt to address the factors that divide us we must rely on language speaking of "multiculturalism," or "the value of diversity," or "pluralism" in an attempt to put a happy face on our fragmentation. Though such speech is devoid of power to transform or even adequately to describe the depth of our divisions it's the best we can do at a place like the university, which knows not the baptismal phenomenon behind Galatians 3. You stay out of my "culture" and I'll stay out of yours. We call it "tolerance," but it is another name for loneliness.
So the preacher need not always be looking over her shoulder, justifying pulpit rhetoric according to some other criterion. Lacking confidence in the power of our story to effect that of which it speaks, to evoke a new people out of nothing, our communication loses its nerve. Nothing is said that could not be heard elsewhere, nobody need die and be raised to assimilate the speech of the Empire or its universities.
Unfortunately, most of the theology I learned in seminary was in the translation mode. Take this biblical image and translate it into something more palatable to people who use Cuisinarts. The modern church has been willing to use everyone's language but its own. In conservative contexts, gospel speech is traded for dogmatic assertion and moralism, for self-help psychologies and narcotic mantras. In more liberal speech, talk tiptoes around the outrage of Christian discourse and ends up as an innocuous, though urbane, affirmation of the ruling order. Unable to preach Christ and him crucified, we preach humanity and it improved. As Walter Brueggemann said, when the preacher is uncertain about speech, a great deal of energy is expended reassuring the listener that nothing will be said that would require conversion in order to be understood, certainly nothing that would be regarded by cultured despisers as either foolish or weak. By the time most of us finish qualifying the scandal of Christian speech, very little can be said by the preacher that can't be heard elsewhere.
To categorize preaching as distinctive baptismal speech is to part company with advocates of linguistic accommodation like David Tracy, who argues (in his books like Plurality and Ambiguity) that our speech must bow to what he calls "public criteria." Tracy says, "the demand for public criteria for truth-claims remains both the initial impetus and the great hope for all contemporary theology." He is surely right about the desire for "public speech" as the great hope of contemporary theology. Yet Tracy is surely wrong in his claim that when ecclesial speech takes its own distinctiveness seriously it becomes private and introverted in a way in which Tracy's speech is not. Tracy claims to fight "obscurantism" and "mystification" — two terms not used by too wide a "public," I daresay. In reality his is the privileged talk of the academy, and one branch of the fragmented academy at that. All energy is expended upon consideration of method as if we could find a method of talking that would enable us to bypass having to admit that, as Christians (or as university professors), our talk arises out of our account of the world, out of a story that is not universal.
Excerpted from Peculiar Speech by William H. Willimon Copyright © 1992 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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