Monday, May 28, 2007

On The Pentecost Parable

I wanted to say a few things about my sermon for Pentecost, to clarify and expand on it.

First, it is an adaptation of an adaptation. What happened was this: The Rev. Tim Schenck, an old friend from seminary, sent around via e-mail an adaptation of the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale. It followed the shape of the original story quite closely, ony with a bishop for the emperor. I found it quite humourous, but it also bothered me to some degree, and in reading it the ending as present in my adaptation occurred to me. I e-mailed Tim back, explained my changes, and asked to use his adaptation (with my adaptations) sometime in a sermon. He said 'fine'. I made numerous small changes throughout the body of the story, but it is essentially as Tim wrote, until the Pentecost service. From that point until the end is my contribution.

Second, what bothered me about the original story - and this is not a criticism of Tim so much as the use to which such stories are put these days - is that it was unapologetically moralistic, and served to do little more than reaffirm the hearers' self-righteousness. That is, the hearers are unlikely to be bishops or emperors, so that character will be to most hearers 'the other'. It is a tiresome commonplace - almost self-evident - that those in authority are out of touch, selfish, vain, conceited, trapped in systems of power which militate against recognising the truth. We've all heard the classic tale and have ingested it deeply, not least because we've also encountered it in real life as well. But this, as I say, only reinforces our own rightness and our low view of others, which is not (I think) a worthy goal in a sermon. So instead I wanted to stretch our imaginations a bit, and try to portray in a genuine way the work of the Spirit. The biblical trope of God using unlikely people on the margins is one way of doing this; I think that God using unlikely people not on the margins might be another way, especially to the extent that it might call our own presuppositions into question, expand our imaginations, and (especially) better know God.

Third, I did specifically include the choirboy - a feature of Tim's story - because for the bishop to realise what was happening on his own would not seem to render faithfully the work of the Spirit; in fact, it might have simply reinforced unthinking obedience and the sort of top-down authority, the apotheosising of bishops, emperors, etc. that Andersen's tale deflates. I don't think that is a worthy goal of preaching, either.

Fourth, I guess it comes down to this: Hans Christian Andersen describes human behaviour. I am trying to describe what God does. (In saying that, I'm not trying to make a value judgement; they both have value for different ends.) In trying to construct the alternate ending I tried to make it as realistic as possible, not mawkish or exaggerated. I also tried to show the difference the Spirit makes for people, portraying it in narrative form for Pentecost. The bishop: 1) is able to be honest about who he is in God - his dual status as unworthy-yet-worthy-because-of-God; 2) repents of his sin (publicly) and recommits himself to his position - as loving service, not worldly honour; 3) in repenting and recommiting himself publicly, he comes to realise that his position is not for himself, but is only established in relationship - he very specifically asks for forgiveness but does not demand that it be given; and 4) in the coda, we see that his renewal is real, for he has been given an imagination of grace beyond self-righteousness and law - he becomes reconciled with those who betrayed him and opens up for them the possibility of new life. (I didn't say what happened to them - 'a story for another time' - because it seemed to make the ending too pat. To leave it open-ended, I hoped, would stimulate our own imaginations not just about the clever robbers, but about others in our lives, and maybe even ourselves.) Grace and love begets grace and love, or so I tried to show.

Anyway, for this sermon especially I wanted to say a few extra words not just in the sermon but about it: about the funny triple-authorship, and about my intentions in modifying it as I did.

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