This afternoon, I’ve been re-reading a paper +Rowan Williams gave some years ago on “Living Baptismally.” In it, he spends some time discussing the priestly dimension of baptismal identity, and he says this:
“A real priesthood is a priesthood that understands what it is to make sense and make connections, and to do so in ways which are very much more than superficial and decorative. A priestliness which is simply putting the stamp of religious approval on what anybody else happens to be doing is not a making of connections. The priest is there to make the unexpected connections, which is more than putting a stamp on what happens to be going on and that is why authentic priesthood is such a very difficult task both for those we call ordained priests and for the whole priestly people of God. In fact, the priest may be seen as the one who must perpetually be asked by (and attempt to answer for) the people, the question Prospero asks Miranda in The Tempest: ‘What seest thou else?’ Making sense is hard work. Making Christian sense, making Christian connections, is still harder. This is a world in which fragmentation is frequently the dominant theme and to make sense, to connect across the abyss…is no small matter.”
As I think about what it might mean to be “ready” to be priested (as I hope to be, soon), this makes a lot of sense to me. It also resonates very strongly with how I understand the task of preaching.
To me, a good sermon is one which makes connections; it brings out elements of the Biblical text and connects those to the real lives of the people listening, and their current circumstances. It takes seriously their experiences of God and faith and seeks to integrate those into a greater whole; the experiences of God and faith of Christians (and indeed other faithful people before them) over the millennia.
This is why experience is important in theological reflection. Because it’s only when our encounter with Scripture actually connects with our own lives, our own understanding, that it is able to be brought to life in us, to push us towards faithfulness and fruitfulness. It’s also why good sermon preparation is about listening; it’s not just what you read in the commentaries, but what you hear at hospital beds, in nursing homes and over cups of tea with your congregation members that provides the raw material for those connections. Preaching can be brilliant without any anchor in the concrete life of the community; but I don’t know that that kind of preaching can be truly life giving in the long term.
It also occurs to me that what +Rowan describes above takes time and space to think. This is perhaps, for the busy pastor (and the busy mother!) the hardest challenge. How do I create the time and space where I am free to think deeply and allow these connections to form? I am reminded again of the importance of that discipline, which I struggle with so much. It’s a struggle in which I need to be vigilant, for the love of the people I’m here to serve.