Academic journal article Currents in Theology and Mission

A Matter of Trust and Imagination

Academic journal article Currents in Theology and Mission

A Matter of Trust and Imagination

Article excerpt

In the first lecture I endeavored, with as much candor and imagination as I could, to respond to the challenge set forth by the trustees, whoever they may be, of the Hein Fry Lectures for this year under their somewhat paranoid topic, "Biblical Preaching in Babel." I think my job was to try to say to them then, as I say to you this morning, that just because they're out to get you is no reason not to be paranoid; but paranoia is a very minor virtue, and what I'm trying to suggest to you is that we ought to get out from underneath the cloud of paranoia which we tend to find comforting and reassuring--for, because we've been under it for so long, we recognize the familiar as the good. I'm suggesting that we get out from underneath that and actually claim the opportunity that our Babel presents to us at this point.

I do that by suggesting that we remember the problem of Babel. The problem, which has been rehearsed over and over and over again for us, was the misdirected ambition, pride, and arrogance of people who understood one another. Think about that. The problem wasn't that they didn't know what to do, or know one another, or understand one another; it was their universal understanding of one another that enabled them to translate that capacity for understanding into an act that actually rather annoyed God. So, the parable of Babel is taking power and resources, which we take for granted, and using them for an ill purpose: "We shall build a proud tower even unto heaven"--an exercise in understanding, in cooperation, and in all of the urban values that most of us appreciate, which is why the story of Babel is so disconcerting to most of us, because the very qualities that annoyed God in Babel are the qualities to which most of us have aspired in our lives: understanding, cooperation, a common task, getting as near to heaven as possible, and building proud towers. It is God who rains--literally--on that parade, and interrupts this cooperative venture, and one might even say interrupts this ecumenical venture. You Lutherans might want to think carefully about the paths you have begun, at long last, to tread, and the confusions amongst them.

The story of the tower of Babel is not my text, but I ask us to think about inverted values as I try to undermine the paradigm that has suggested Babel as something to deal with. Of course your trustees took Babel to be now--the confusion of tongues, and the fact that some of us speak in language that others do not understand, and the resulting chaos and confusion. These lectures occur in Eastertide, looking forward to the clarification of tongues that occurs at Pentecost, when confusion is meant to be dispersed by the power of the Holy Spirit, and so it suggests that Babel is a good place to be because we have something to look forward to that is clearer: deeper understanding, and a subversion of our desires and fears, and a confirmation of our understanding of God's purposes and movement among us. If you are groping for what you might say in your Pentecost sermon, maybe this is one of those freebies for which you come to lectures such as these, groping for yet one more unused illustration from a foreigner; and I give you permission to do with it whatever you wish. Remember, in this age of anxious attribution of sources, all work and no plagiarism makes Jack or Jane a dull preacher. I give it to you for all that it's worth.

In the first lecture I talked about the new paradigm in which we find ourselves, which is turning a dilemma into an opportunity--that is, dealing with people who don't speak our language and who are interested in what we might have to say, which therefore presents a new opportunity for preaching, in my opinion--a golden opportunity for the rehabilitation of the sermon. Marcus Borg has a wonderful set of constructs, which he uses in the titles of his books on rediscovering Jesus for the first time and rereading the Bible for the first time, (1) and the thing that makes the titles interesting is the notion that we are recovering something with which we were once familiar but which we now hear differently and in a different voice. …

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