I am detecting a consistent trend in my preaching. I am targeting the individual. This comes in part from my own experience and formation in existentialism but also in my experience of the Mennonite church in which it is easy for individuals to point to our good works in social services and non-violent initiatives. And then when the individual is called to account it is typically with some moral leveraging or slightly shamed response of what else we could be doing.
The approach I am taking seeks a type of honesty in which honesty is divorced from being identified as a criteria of truth. I am not sure where I equated honesty with truth . . . is that a cultural thing? But, rather, I am seeking honesty as an attempt at congruence and liberation. I am trying to push the listener to simply acknowledge the way things are. This is not a statement about access to some neutral or objective body of truth but of making observations. Observations could include things like money and economic security as constituting our primary mode of personal decision making. Observations like acknowledging the power of status and conformity within the church. There are many observations that need to be made as such (without attaching judgment or additional meaning). Subsequent interpretations can follow but I believe many of them can initially stand as they are. Secondly, I am trying to divorce these types of observations from the typical and almost immediate shift to guilt and/or shame. The reason for this is not because we are not guilty of things or that certain expressions could not be considered shameful. Rather, I want to move away from them because they are debilitating. I want us to get a sense that we are in many ways already ‘living a lie’ so why don’t we name it as such where we need to. In this I want the pursuit of congruence (naming life as we actually live it) to lead towards a liberating experience and liberating expressions.
As part of being honest with myself in this process I must admit that with respect to liberation I hold to some view of ‘enlightenment’. This does not refer to an isolated inner-journey but again it refers to a sort of honesty that manifests itself in congruence with action, experience and belief. This is partially informing my conception of faith in which anchors to various modes of knowledge and decision are exposed. While I hold a high view of material and social liberation as it is being expressed in many contemporary theologies I cannot shake the notion that there is a prior act and experience of liberation. I would consider the Gospel insufficient if it cannot offer liberation to those suffering under material bondage. That is, I believe there is liberation without immediate material liberation. This does not mean that the two are divorced. Rather it takes Jesus as an example in the liberating independence he exhibits despite the fact that his life arcs towards material bondage. So while full liberation is always to be engaged and on the table this does not deny that individuals cannot already enter into forms of liberation. For those with material forms of power at their disposal congruence will mean acting in accord with liberation; which means oppression as incongruent with liberation.
All of this is to say that I believe in a personally engaged form of faith that works intimately with, if not perhaps prior to, structural changes. So I will continue to support those working on a structural and social level (and hope to add my own contributions) but given my primary influence in preaching the individual remains a fundamental orientation. I hope to continue to push my own ‘honesty’ in this expression. Currently I am actively monitoring the extent to which my sermon preparation reflects a safety with respect to my own economic stability (how much does my preaching secure my salary!). I believe that this influence is waning but I would also admit that it is still probably the strongest external influence. I could interpret this as a structural flaw (that is churches that can dictate whether or not they want to keep a pastor) but I am not interested in engaging it on that level (presently). It may actually be helpful situation for a church to work through what it would mean to have to reject and even fire a pastor on the basis of his or her preaching. In any event I am working on liberating myself from economic security in my preaching and trying move others towards expressions of congruent liberation.