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For six years now I’ve been getting together with a group of colleagues so we can plan our preaching for the year.  It was Amy Butler’s idea.  When I was at First Baptist, DC, she was at Calvary Baptist, just a few blocks away.  We would get together at Starbucks on Monday mornings with a few other preachers to talk about what we were going to do the following Sunday and one day she said, “You know what we ought to do?  We ought to do this for the whole year!”

And so we sent out some invitations, and a few months later six of us spent several days at a big house in the mountains of West Virginia, looking over the lectionary texts for the following year.

Each of us had an assignment.  I was supposed to bring some good ideas for preaching through those Sundays after Christmas and before Ash Wednesday.  Others in our group had the seasons of Lent, Easter, Advent, and that long stretch of Sundays after Pentecost, often called “Ordinary Time,” which we divided into two parts.

We talked about a lot of things in those days.  We talked about our lives and churches and ministry, but we also ended the week with a pretty good sense of what we would be preaching in the year ahead, and that felt good.

We’ve been doing it ever since.

Last year we had the idea to do it in the summer instead of the fall, and to bring our families along.  We got the use of a big house on Lake James in North Carolina, and Russ Dean brought his ski boat.  So, we planned our preaching each morning and then, each afternoon (sometimes after naps), we went down to the dock for swimming and sunbathing, skiing and tubing.   In the evenings we would sometimes share our favorite sermons with each other.  One night we sat on the front porch telling the stories of how we met our spouses.  Another night we ended up in a free-spirited dance party in the living room.  The kids loved that.  And so did the grownups.

On the last night we gathered around the campfire to sing songs and make S’mores and it really did feel like we had been at camp for a week.  We all felt a little closer to God and a little closer to each other.  Plus, I had some idea of what I will be preaching each Sunday from now through Advent 2012.

You don’t have many weeks like that in a year, and when you have one you just want to thank somebody for it.  So, thanks to the family who loaned us their lake house, and thanks to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which gave us some funding for the event, and thanks be to God for colleagues who have become such close friends: for Russ Dean, and Amy Butler, and Don Flowers, and Dorisanne Cooper, and John Ballenger, and for our time together at…

…Preacher Camp.

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Yesterday was Christ the King Sunday, and I closed out the sermon with this story:

Back in 1984 I went to the polling place to cast my vote for president.  That was the year Walter Mondale was running against the incumbent, Ronald Reagan.  I was 25 years old, I had just started seminary, I was out to change the world.  To tell you the truth I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to the presidential campaign and as I made my way to the polling place I found that I didn’t have strong feelings about either candidate.  I’ve never had a lot of interest in politics, never pinned all my hopes on any elected official.  I stood in that voting booth for a long time, looking at those two names, and finally I chose the third option: I wrote in a name, and the name I wrote in was my dad’s.  When I told people about it later I told them that, honestly, I couldn’t think of anyone who would make a better president.  No offense to those two candidates who were running but I knew my dad, I knew he was good and kind and wise.  And I also knew this, that if it ever came right down to it my dad would lay down his life for me, and that’s the kind of president you would want, isn’t it?

“If you are a king,” the religious authorities said to Jesus, “then save yourself.”  “If you are a king,” the soldiers said, “then save yourself.”  “If you are a king,” the other thief said, “then save yourself.”  But Jesus turned out to be the kind of king who cared more about saving others than saving himself, and so he hung there on that cross, beneath that sign (“This is the King of the Jews”), until his work was done.  I don’t know what kind of king you want, but if I could choose, I would choose a king like that. 

For the full text of the sermon click HERE.  And if you want to write in my dad’s name next election, it’s James Somerville, no middle name.

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Sometime during last week’s annual sermon-planning retreat we started calling it “Preacher Camp.”

I’m talking about the event I referenced in my last post, where I get together with five of my closest colleagues for a week to map out our preaching for the year.  The difference was that this year we brought the kids.  They were sitting at the breakfast table on that first morning still rubbing the sleep from their eyes when I said, “Welcome to Preacher Camp, boys and girls!  When breakfast is over we’re going to have Bible study, then take a nature hike, and then go to crafts.  We’ll follow that with lunch and rest time, and then we’ll all go down to the lake for a swim.  Sound good?”  I got a lot of blank stares in return, and only after several minutes did three-year-old Adam say, “You’re teasing, right, Mr. Jim?” 

Yes.  I was teasing.  But while the preachers sat at a table on the side porch and had Bible study (working through every Sunday of 2011) the children read books and drew pictures and played ping pong and took a hike, and after lunch and naps we all went down to the lake for a swim.  So, in many ways, it was like camp, especially the last night when we built a campfire and sat around it singing silly songs and roasting marshmallows. 

What I learned is that this collection of preacher’s kids is sweet, smart, kind, and funny.  Five-year-old Audra Ballenger was full of interesting questions and comments, and one of my favorite pictures from the week is the one of her delivering a long lecture to Russ Dean as she sat on his stomach while he lay on the couch.  Eleven-year-old Bennett Dean came into his own on Thursday night, busting some sweet moves at a spontaneous dance party and encouraging the rest of us to toss inhibition to the wind.  My own daughter Catherine (the oldest by far at nineteen) was sweetly patient with an adoring “fan club” of small children and happy to engage in conversation with their parents while sunning on the dock. 

Unlike some of the warnings you hear about “preachers’ kids,” these were the kind you would want to spend a week with.  It makes me think that this generation of preachers, or at least the ones I hang out with, have given up on the idea that their children will be neatly dressed and perfectly behaved at all times, that they will know all the books of the Bible and want to come to church three times a week.  They seem much more willing to let their kids be kids, and that’s not a bad thing, especially if they are the kids of people whose relationship with God and whose saturation in his Word has led them to be loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, generous, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled.  The fruit of the spirit is evident in the lives of their children, and the apples don’t fall far from the tree.

So, this is an expression of appreciation not only to those preachers’ kids I spent the week with, but to the preachers who are raising them.  Thank you Don, John, Russ, Amy, and Dorisanne—for being the people you are and for passing so much of that goodness along to the next generation. 

The world needs people like your kids.

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This week I will be attending an annual sermon planning event near Asheville, NC, where five of my closest colleagues and I will try to map out our preaching for an entire year.  Three years ago we decided to call this event “Homipalooza,” from Homiletics (the art of preaching) and Palooza (which is apparently some kind of crazy party).  Imagine six Baptist preachers sitting around in shorts and T-shirts planning their preaching for a year and any notion of crazy partying will quickly fade.  There are lots of books involved, manilla folders, laptop computers, endless discussions, theological debates, and abundant snacks (OK, maybe it is a party).  If we do it well, at the end of the week we will each come away with a three-ring binder full of handouts and a few good ideas for every Sunday of the year.  Even if we don’t do it well, we will have had some time to talk about our work with people who understand it, who know what it’s like to try to meet a long list of expectations each week (usually our own) and still find time to write a sermon.  I’m hoping that in this week of sermon planning I will still be able to find some of that kind of time, and that I will come back to Richmond inspired and ready to preach.

Before I go, let me leave you with this answer to the question someone asked me last week: “How do you make a sermon?”

Ingredients:

1  juicy passage of Scripture, ancient but somehow still fresh
2  hours of writing down every thought that comes into my head
3  thoughtful friends or colleagues to talk it over with
4  good commentaries to answer most of my questions

Mix ingredients together and let them simmer on the back burner for three days, stirring occasionally.  Add some of the illustrations and anecdotes that have come to mind in those three days (but be careful not to use all of them).   Lift the lid from time to time and inhale to see if there’s anything in there that smells like a sermon.  Season to taste. 

In an ideal world you would simply serve the sermon up like stew at that point, and everyone would eat and be satisfied.  In the real world it is only after the sermon has simmered on the back burner for a few days that I’m ready to put my thoughts into some kind of order, and only after I’ve put them in order that I’m ready to put them into words.  For me, that’s the most time-consuming part of the process.  I spend most of the day Saturday writing and re-writing in an effort to get it just right.  But when Sunday comes I serve up what I’ve made in the hope that it will nourish and sustain the people who have come to hear it, and when it does I’m as grateful as your mother used to be when you looked up from your empty plate after Sunday dinner and said,

“Thanks, Mom!”

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Last week was a busy week for me.

  • I preached three times at the bicentennial celebration of Wingate Baptist Church in North Carolina, a church I served from 1991-2000.
  • I went from there to a sermon-planning retreat in South Carolina, where five other Baptist pastors and I planned our preaching for an entire year.
  • I went from there to an Episcopal camp and conference center near Houston, Texas, to lead a preaching workshop for a group of newly ordained priests.
  • I came back to Richmond in time to preach (twice) on Sunday, dedicate three children, and run with the 10K training team.

I can sum up the events of the week in a few bullet points, but it would take much longer to describe how it felt to step to the pulpit in the sanctuary of Wingate Baptist Church last Saturday night and look out over the beautiful, beaming faces of people I loved and served for nine years.  I told them it reminded me of a dream I’d had about heaven once, and it did—almost exactly.  Or to describe what it was like to share ideas with five of my closest colleagues as we sat around the living room of a lake house in Greenwood, South Carolina, bundled up in fleece pullovers, taking notes and jabbing our pens in the air for emphasis as the sun went down on a January day.  It would take too long to describe that moment when the nervous young Episcopal priest stood in front of our group and told the story of how she learned what ministry was about during a summer on the pediatric intensive care wing of a hospital, as the rest of us swallowed at the lumps in our throats and wiped our eyes.  And it would take even longer to describe what it was like to come home to Richmond, finally, and preach to a sanctuary full of people who feel—more and more these days—like family, to catch those winks and nods, those smiles and knowing looks, that can only come after you’ve spent some time together.

It was wonderful.

I will say this: it seems that every time I come back to Richmond from somewhere else I feel a little more at home here, as if you needed to say “I’m home!” out loud a few dozen times in a new place before you really felt it.  I’m feeling it, and it feels good, and except for the quick trip I’m taking to Orlando on Wednesday and the drive up to New York at the end of the month to take some things to my daughter,

I’m home.

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I’ve had some requests for the meditation I shared at the Hanging of the Green service on Sunday night.  Here it is, and if I say so myself it probably reads better than it “preaches.” 

There was a time in my life when all I wanted to be was a photographer for National Geographic magazine.  Maybe everybody has that dream at some time.  But I took it further than most: I traveled from Charleston, West Virginia, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, on a Greyhound bus when I was nineteen years old and spent a month studying photography with my great aunt Caroline.  I learned a lot.  I learned that the word photography means “to write with light.”  I spent a month trying to do that, trying to coax the light into the lens of my camera and onto the film in such a way that my great aunt would say, “You got it.  That’s it!”  She did say that—once—but by the time I took the bus back to West Virginia I had pretty well given up on my dream.  That month in New Mexico did make a lasting impression on me, however: I fell in love with the light.  I began to see it everywhere, all the time, began to see how it fell on the landscape, how it changed from early morning to the middle of the day, how precious it was in those last moments before twilight.  In fact, this afternoon I spent an hour driving my brother Billy around Richmond and everywhere we went I pointed out the beautiful light, and the way it was falling on the buildings or reflecting off the water.

In a book called, Why Religion Matters, Huston Smith spends a whole chapter talking about light.  He begins by saying that light is a universal metaphor for God.  And then, borrowing the language of quantum physics, he talks about the way light transcends time and space, the way it shares the properties of energy and matter, the way it can make something out of nothing through the process of photosynthesis.  He doesn’t say that light is God but he comes close, so close that I began to think about the similarities, about the way light is everywhere in the universe, how just a little bit of it can drive back a world of darkness, how it warms, and cheers, and brightens.

I read that book in the days just after September 11, 2001, when I was living and working in Washington, DC, and it was a huge help to me.  Those were days when I didn’t get on the Metro in the morning without thinking that something terrible could happen, and as I rode the escalator up from the Dupont Circle station I would pray, “Lord, if this is my day to die let me do it with courage and strength.”  Everybody seemed shaky in those days.  We all needed to be reassured.  And so here I was, reading a chapter in Huston Smith’s book in which he was talking about how much light and God had in common, and on that day, as I came up the escalator praying my little prayer, I looked up and saw the light just falling all over the buildings on 19th Street.  It was that beautiful, golden, early morning sunlight.  It was dazzling, and fairly dripping down the sides of the buildings, puddling in the streets.  I don’t know that I had ever seen it so perfect and pure.  I found myself thinking, “God is here, right here, pouring out his blessing on the city.”

Huston Smith may stop just short of saying light is God, but 2000 years ago the author of 1 John said God is light.  Do you remember that?  “God is light,” he said, “and in him is no darkness at all.”  It may have been the same author who said, “the true light that enlightens every person was coming into the world.  He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, and yet the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him, but to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the power to become the children of God” (John 1). 

Not long ago I read a blog post by a Canadian named James Loney who lives in Baghdad.  He talked about the violence in the city, about bombs exploding so close to his house he could feel the sound in his chest, about friends who witnessed the aftermath of a bombing, who saw the blood-sprayed wall, and body parts, and people carrying away the victims.  But somewhere in the middle of that horrifying report he wrote this:

I have fallen in love with the light in Baghdad. How can I catch, hold, describe it in words, except to say there is just something about it. In the mornings, when I go onto the roof of our apartment building to hang my laundry or greet the day, the light rushes about me, kisses me everywhere. It is fine and simple and gracious, cheerful and embracing and flowing, a pouring swimming breathing medley of lemons and yellow roses and honey.  More than this I cannot say: you must come see for yourself.

I think about that light falling on the bombed-out city of Baghdad, about the writer of 1 John, maybe looking out through the bars of his prison cell as he writes, “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.”  I think about the golden, late-afternoon sunshine that washed over Richmond today and I fall in love with the light all over again.  I think of God, embracing the city with these radiant beams, blessing it before moving on to the west to bless the cities of Chicago, and Dallas, Los Angeles, and yes, in due time, the city of Baghdad, where little children feel the morning sunlight fall across their faces, kissing their beautiful brown cheeks, waking them up with a strange and wonderful sense of hopefulness that today will be a better day.

So may it be.

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Maybe it’s because I’m a lectionary preacher, but when I start to work on a sermon I start not with an idea or a theme, but with the Bible.  That’s what I did when I was getting ready to preach at the annual meeting of the Baptist General Association of Virginia recently.  The theme was “A time for extravagance” but the text was Luke 7:36-38, so instead of pulling from the files my sermon on John 12:1-8 (which was all about extravagance) I started fresh with the text from Luke 7.

I’m glad I did.  I learned things I would have never learned if I had simply preached that other sermon.  But one of the things I learned is that this story from Luke 7 is different from all the other stories in the Gospels about women anointing Jesus.  That story from John 12:1-8 for example is a story about Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, anointing Jesus’ feet with a pound of pure nard—a very precious perfume.  There’s a similar story in Mark 14:3-9 about a woman who comes to the home of Simon the leper, breaks open an alabaster jar of nard, and pours it on Jesus’ head (not his feet).  Matthew uses this same story in 26:6-13 with very little elaboration on Mark’s version.  Again it is an unnamed woman who pours “costly ointment” on Jesus’ head.

The stories in John, Mark, and Matthew are all stories about women anointing Jesus with costly perfume or ointment as a way of preparing his body for burial.  The story in Luke 7, however, is about a sinful woman who comes to Jesus while he is eating at the home of Simon the Pharisee (not the leper).  She bathes his feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, covers them with kisses, and massages them with ointment.  It is a scene of shocking intimacy.  There is no mention of expensive perfume, no reference to preparing Jesus’ body for burial.  This woman does what she does to express her gratitude for the forgiveness she has received from Jesus.  It is a completely different story, about a completely different woman.

But you wouldn’t have known that if you had been at the BGAV meeting.  Almost everyone who stepped to the pulpit to preach or offer an interpretation on the theme talked about this woman who poured expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet.  They tossed the details of these four stories together as if they were one, talking about how this woman named Mary, who was a sinner (probably a prostitute), poured out ointment or perfume or something expensive on Jesus’ feet (or maybe it was his head) and the fragrance filled the room. 

Did it?  And does it matter?

I think it does.  While the stories from Matthew, Mark, and John might be lumped together under a single heading—“A woman anoints Jesus with expensive perfume in preparation for his burial”—the story from Luke needs a different heading altogether, something like—“A sinful woman pours out her gratitude for the gift of forgiveness.”  The point of this story is different from the others.  The characters in the story are different.  The details don’t match up.  To treat it as if it were the same story as those others is to twist its meaning into a shape Luke would not recognize—it is to do violence to the text.

You can tell I feel strongly about this.  Maybe it’s because I’ve heard too much “biblical preaching” that isn’t biblical at all.  It doesn’t begin or end with the Bible.  It is simply some preacher cloaking his thoughts and opinions in bibical language or using one verse of the Bible as a springboard into a sermon that never touches on that verse again.  Maybe the next time you listen to a sermon you could ask yourself some questions: “Is it faithful to the text?” “Does it communicate what the biblical writer was trying to say?” “How much of it is simply the preacher’s own opinion?”  And if you’re writing a sermon, of course, take the responsibility seriously.  Take the Bible seriously.

Do your homework.

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