2 Naming Grace: Preaching and the Sacramental Imagination

Mary Catherine Hilkert, OP

Just before Christmas in 1979, Time magazine featured as its cover article a piece entitled “American Preaching – A Dying Art?” The author’s analysis of the state of preaching in the United States at that time went like this:

‘The Word became flesh,’ says John’s Gospel of the incarnate Christ of Bethlehem. In Christmas sermons before some 75 million Americans this week, words about Christ will become flesh in the person of the preacher.  Through their strange and marvelous craft, Christianity has been transmitted and reshaped for every age since  Christ himself went ‘preaching the Gospel of the kingdom.’

“For many American churchgoers, though, a Sunday sermon is something merely to be endured. Many preachers and parishioners alike think that passionate and skillful preaching has grown rarer and rarer in individual congregations in postwar years. The chilling of the word is a major contribution to the evident malaise in many large Protestant denominations these days. For Roman Catholics, the sermon has not been as important, but rather a kind of spiritual hors d’oeuvre before the Eucharist.”

Almost 15 years later, the situation has not changed significantly. A sociological survey was conducted in 1988 among lay church members in four denominations in the United States – Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran and Methodist.[1] Parishes or congregations were asked to list in order of priority their highest hopes and expectations from their church and then to rate how successfully each of those expectations was met.

All four denominations listed “preaching” as their first priority and “spiritual life” as their second. When asked how successfully their church met their expectations, all four denominations indicated their disappointment in both areas.

We who are Catholics in the post-Vatican II Church might validly protest the caricature of preaching as a mere “hors d’oeuvre before the Eucharist.” The liturgical reforms of Vatican II have certainly underscored the centrality of the homily in all of our sacramental worship (SC, 35, 53).

The documents on the roles of bishops and priests reemphasize the bishop’s responsibility to see that the Word of God is proclaimed effectively in the local church and that “priests … have as their primary duty the proclamation of the gospel of God to all” (BP: LG 25, CD 12; Priests, P04, CD 28, LG 28). What is even more remarkable is the emphasis on the responsibility of all the baptized to share in the preaching mission of the church (AA 2, CD 35, GS 43).

Nevertheless, the concern about the “chilling of the word” remains. Almost 25 years ago, Paul VI identified the problem in his Apostolic Exhortation on Evangelization: “In our day, what has happened to that hidden energy of the good news which is able to have such a powerful effect on the human conscience? To what extent and in what way is that evangelical force capable of really transforming people of this century?”[2]

When preachers, pastors or sociologists of religion gather to identify why there is not more energy surrounding the preaching of the Church, questions of the theology and spirituality of preaching rarely are the focus of the discussion. Even the homiletic literature to date is very limited in those areas.[3] The wager of this lecture, however, is that one factor contributing to the blocking of the power of the Gospel in our day is precisely our understanding of where the word of God is located and what the preaching event is meant to be.

Most theologies of preaching to date have been developed from the perspective of the Reformation traditions, usually in neo orthodox categories that have highlighted the utter transcendence of God’s Word, the sinfulness of the human situation and some form of law-gospel paradigm for preaching. Thus, for example, in his classic book, The Preaching of the Gospel, Reformed theologian Karl Barth asserts that, “It is not the function of the preacher to reveal God or to act as his intermediary. When the Gospel is preached, God speaks: there is no question of the preacher revealing anything or of a revelation being conveyed through him.” (p. 12)

Barth is clear in his conviction that the proclamation of the Gospel is to be proclamation of the Word of God – not some human word. Preaching is not supposed to interpret the world or human experience religiously or to tell the stories of women and men, no matter how inspiring – it is to express the Word of God.[4] The preacher is to announce what God has made known in Jesus Christ.

Barth’s theology of revelation is explicit: God’s Word is revealed in Jesus, in the Scriptures, in the proclamation of the Church. It is not revealed in human history or human experience; neither is it mediated by the preacher or the community. Revelation is totally God’s action. The preacher is the herald who bears witness to God’s sovereign power and grace in Jesus Christ.

When the authentic Word of God is preached, the Spirit of God calls forth the human response of obedience to the Word. Barth reminds us, however, that the relationship between humanity and God is “effected from on high by a divine miracle. [We are] not naturally disposed to hear the Word of God: we are children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3).[5]

The theology of preaching that emerges from the Lutheran tradition is classically described as a law-gospel hermeneutic. The preacher first diagnoses the human situation under the burden of God’s law, which we have no power to observe. As Richard Lischer, professor of homiletics at Duke University, describes it: The “first word” to be said about the human condition is the “bad news” of our failure to live in fidelity to God’s covenant, resulting in the condition of enmity with God. We are “children of wrath.”[6]

Having confronted the congregation with the law, the preacher then announces the Gospel: the good news that in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we are no longer “under the law”; rather we live in the freedom of the children of God. The bottom line is, of course, Paul’s famous phrase: “Where sin abounds, grace abounds still more” (Rom. 5:20).

There is a profound truth to this Christian perspective on the preaching of the Gospel with its emphasis on the power of the proclaimed Word, the sovereignty of God, the radical alienation at the heart of the human condition and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. These are convictions that all Christians share, even if we don’t all emphasize them in the same way that Karl Barth did, especially in his early writings.

What I’d like to explore this evening is another way of expressing the relationship between the divine and the human, what I’m calling tonight “the sacramental imagination.” In an age of ecumenical dialogue and significant diversity within any specific religious tradition, it becomes difficult to identify clear distinctions between Protestants and Catholics. David Tracy has suggested that it may be at the level of “imagination” that the most significant differences occur.[7]

We might speak of two distinct Christian spiritualities that cannot be identified simply as Protestant and Catholic. For example, Anglicans, some Lutherans and some Methodists find themselves more at home in the sacramental imagination than in the forms of Reformation theology I have just described – what David Tracy calls the dialectical imagination.

The dialectical imagination emphasizes the distance between God and humanity, focuses on the hiddenness and absence of God, the sinfulness of human beings, the paradox of the cross, the need for grace as forgiveness and reconciliation, the limits of any human community or institution including the Church, and the not-yet character of the promised reign of God.

The sacramental imagination (or what Tracy calls The Analogical Imagination) emphasizes the presence of the God who is self-communicating love, the creation of human beings in the image of God – restless hearts seeking the divine, the mystery of the incarnation, grace as divinizing as well as forgiving, the mediating role of the Church as sacrament of salvation in the world, and the “foretaste” of the reign of God, which is present in human community wherever God’s reign of justice, peace and love is fostered.

It is in terms of anthropology that the dialectical and sacramental imaginations diverge most dramatically. The 1983 ecumenical breakthrough statement from the U.S. Lutheran Roman Catholic dialogue on “Justification by Faith” highlights the theological differences in this area:

The Lutheran hermeneutical understanding of justification by faith in some ways heightens the tension with Catholic positions. It does so by excluding from the Gospel proclamation all reference to the freedom and goodness of fallen human beings on the ground that this would undermine the unconditionality of God’s promises in Christ.[8]

It is precisely here that a contribution to the growing ecumenical discussion of a theology of preaching might be made from the sacramental imagination that views grace as active in and through humanity and creation. Grounded in the conviction that sin never completely destroyed the created goodness of humanity, the Catholic response to the debate initiated by Emil Brunner as to whether there is a “point of contact for preaching the Gospel of grace” – in other words, is there a touchstone in people’s human experience for the hearing of the Gospel? – is clearly “yes.”

The Catholic tradition has emphasized that grace builds on nature and that grace affects a real inner transformation of the human person. Karl Rahner has taken that insight even further in his claim that human beings always stand within the call to grace; God’s offer of intimate friendship with humanity constitutes a basic orientation of every human person’s life from the very beginning (in Rahnerian language, the supernatural existential). Human persons are actually constituted as “hearers of the Word” – all human beings, in fact creation itself, has been fashioned as “openness for the incarnation.”

Because human persons are not pure spirit, but rather body – spirit, grace (or the invisible presence of God among us) needs to be made present in concrete, historical, visible ways. The spiritual mystery at the heart of reality is mediated in and through the ordinary events and persons of our daily lives, through human history and creation.

But that mystery of love at the core of reality remains “hidden” or “anonymous” unless it is brought to word. That is what both preaching and the sacraments (which Augustine called “visible words”) do: they allow the grace that is the depth dimension of reality to be recognized and celebrated.

Catholic spirituality and theology have traditionally emphasized the continuity, rather than the discontinuity, between nature and grace, between creation and revelation, between our ordinary human lives and the extraordinary gift of God’s presence and power among us. So it seems “fitting,” as Aquinas would say, to speak of the continuity between human experience and Christian preaching.

Any Christian theology of preaching will center on Jesus Christ as Word of God. But what if, instead of emphasizing the difference of Jesus from the rest of us and the transcendence of God’s Word, we were to focus on the mystery of the incarnation – the mystery that God’s fullest word has been spoken in history, in a human being, in human experience? What are the implications of believing that the Word of God is to be discovered enfleshed in human history?

While it may not be immediately apparent, all of this has implications for the concrete process of homily preparation and feedback. Those of us who are preachers, for example, might reflect on our process of preparing a homily.

Do I operate as if the Word of God is revealed to me in the biblical passage, in my prayer, and in my study of the commentaries by theologians, and think of the process of writing the homily as trying somehow to apply this Word of God to people’s secular lives and a profane world? Or do I really believe that God’s Word (a word of hope, of healing, of liberation, of resurrection) is being spoken in new ways today in people’s concrete experiences and daily lives?

Is the same creative Spirit of God who was active in the his – tory of Israel, in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, in the Church of the past, and in the lives of the saints, still active among us today? If that’s part of our theology of revelation, then reflection on culture, on people’s lives and human experience, is necessary, not as a way to make a homily relevant or to get people’s attention, but in order to even hear that the Word God is speaking today.

Naming the grace that is to be found in the faith experience of the community involves listening to and learning from the members of the community. Very practical decisions regarding team preaching, communal faith-sharing, dialogic modes of preaching, invitations to preach for those whose voices are rarely heard in the community and the creation of opportunities for response to preaching all communicate an underlying theology of preaching and revelation. The word of faith that the preacher proclaims is the community’s word. The preacher speaks in the name of the community and proclaims the deepest convictions of the community.

That means the preacher needs the kind of contemplative awareness that seeks God in and through all the experiences of life. Another way to say this is that our sacramental imaginations need to be developed if we are to grasp the implications of the mystery of incarnation for a theology of preaching. The mystery of the divine has become one with creation; God has become flesh in human history; the Spirit of God is alive and active and “loose in the world” and dwells among communities of Christian believers who live and speak in the name of Jesus.

Given that sacramental imagination, I’m suggesting this evening that we reflect on preaching as the art of naming grace in human experience. But if we are to do that, it is important to recall three things: 1) we are talking about human experience in its depth dimension; 2) in our world today, most people’s experi ence of God is in the face of, and often in spite of, human suf fering; and 3) we get our clues as to how to identify grace in the human story from the biblical story and basic symbols of the Christian tradition.

Human Experience in its Depths

Naming the presence of God in human experience requires pressing to the limits of human existence, where both the threat of radical human finitude and experiences of overwhelming meaning and joy raise the fundamentally religious question of the “ground of our being.” At the boundaries of human life, “signals of transcendence” emerge within human experience. Secular language breaks its limits in trying to express “the other dimension” or the “surplus of meaning” disclosed from the depths of human experience.[9]

While revelation takes place in human experience, it cannot be identified with human experience. Rather, as Edward Schillebeeckx has noted, “Revelation takes place in historical human experience in this world, but at the same time it summons us from what we take for granted in our limited world. It is therefore not to be found in any direct appeal to our so -called self evident experiences within the world. As experience, it is the crossing of a boundary within the dimensions of human experience.”[10] At this boundary or final limit of human experience, we either speak of God or we must remain silent.

Thus one of the contemplative tasks of the preacher or preaching community is to reflect on human experience in order to identify the ultimate foundation of the mystery of human life: the God who often remains hidden. The ability to make that connection presumes that preachers are in touch with the human struggle – their own and those of others.

Both the prophets in the history of Israel, such as Hosea, Ezekiel and Jeremiah, and the authentic early Christian preachers like Mary Magdalene, Peter and Paul were formed for their preaching through the profound, and usually painful, human experience of whatever aspect of God’s word they were called to preach.

So, too, those who pray to become ministers of the word in our day are asking to be baptized in the experience from which that word emerged. Whether from our own life experience or from attending to the stories of others, nothing human should remain foreign to preachers if we are to grasp what it means to proclaim that all of humanity has been taken into God and redeemed in Christ.[11]

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke knew well that the authentic word can flow only from the depths of life experience. As he wrote to a younger poet:

For the sake of a single verse, one must see many cities,  people and things. One must know the animals, one must feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which  the small flowers open in the morning. One must be able  to think back to roads in unknown regions, to unexpected  meetings and to partings one had long seen coming; to  days of childhood that are still unexplained … to days in  rooms withdrawn and quiet, and to mornings by the sea,  to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel … and it is not  yet enough if one may think of all this. One must have  memories of many nights of love … of the screams of  women in labor …. But one must also have been beside  the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with  the open window and the fitful noises. And still it is not  yet enough to have memories. One must be able to forget  them when they are many, and one must have the great  patience to wait until they come again. For it is not yet  the memories themselves. Not until they have turned to  blood within us, to glance and gesture, nameless and no  longer to be distinguished from ourselves – not until then  can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a  verse arises in their midst and goes forth from them.[12]

The contemplative embrace of life that Rilke describes as essential to the creative writer is all the more necessary for the preacher who is called to make the word a home, to dwell in the Word of God that is a word enfleshed.

Some would argue that this naming of grace that is already present in human life does not do justice to the power of the word to bring about salvation, not just to name it.[13] But because human persons live according to the meanings we perceive and construct, the naming of grace is no small matter.

Bringing a deeper dimension of human life to awareness and conscious responsibility has serious implications. A friendship forms before it is fully recognized and claimed, but when friends or partners explicitly claim the bond of love between them, they also deepen their commitment to one another and make decisions that will affect future choices.

Communities and individuals act in outrage and response when the innocent are violated, but meetings that clarify and analyze the structural evils that perpetuate individual crimes deepen the participants’ anger and their commitment to justice. A change of perception or worldview is essential to a radical change of life. Even on the level of human words, we know the power of words to deepen or even create what they signify. What happens when someone speaks words like:

I love you.

This relationship is over. I want a divorce.

I’m sorry to have to tell you, your cancer is inoperable.

Here I stand; I can do no other.

You are hereby sentenced to life imprisonment.

I, Martha, take you, Juan, to be my husband.

I’m sorry your services won’t be needed any longer.

You are forgiven.

Those kinds of words open up new futures – or cut off the future. They are not “just words”; they are symbols that evoke a deeper mystery, whether of love or possibility or belief or com – mitment or death. The relationship of love was there before the words were spoken. The problems in the relationship were there before any mention of divorce, but somehow with the words the reality of the relationship or commitment is deepened or changed.

In a real sense, those kinds of words have the power to create a new experience. Our world is not the same before and after words like that are spoken. We might call those words revelatory words, because they disclose levels of the mystery of human life that are too deep for words. When we are talking about preaching as naming grace, we are talking about a “naming” that has that kind of power.

Naming Grace in the Midst of Suffering

One of the fundamental challenges to any preacher of the good news that God is with us, however, is all the evidence to the contrary. Whether we turn to Haiti, Rwanda, Bosnia, our own city streets, battered women’s shelters, the AIDS hospice, the unemployment line, the most recent story of child abuse, or the more daily struggles of families and individuals gathered for Sunday worship, stories of suffering abound.

Is it really possible that grace abounds still more? Is the power of resurrection really active among us? Does the Spirit of God continue to raise the dead to life? As we listen for a word of God from that context of global suffering, believers continue to wrestle with what Karl Barth identified in 1922 as “every hearer’s question” about the good news: “Is it true?”

Barth remarked on the contrast between what the liturgy proclaims and people’s concrete lives:

The whole liturgy says: God is present. The whole  situation witnesses, cries, simply shouts of it, even if in  the minister or people there arises questioning, wretchedness, or despair …. But what does “God is  present” mean in the face of the great riddle of existence? … Is it true? – this talk of a loving and good God who is more than one of the friendly idols? … A passionate  longing to have the word spoken that promises grace is  the desire of every church-goer no matter how they  express their want in so-called real life.[14]

The word of grace that all human beings, not only church-goers, long to hear cannot be spoken too quickly, however. Hope in the resurrection cannot be experienced as a radical experience of grace unless the cross of Jesus is seen for the profound sign of contradiction that Paul reminded us it is. Preaching the incarnation – which includes the whole paschal mystery – in the midst of a world of suffering is only possible if we take seriously contemporary experiences of anguish, impasse and the absence of God.

How can we continue to proclaim Jesus as universal savior in a world where so many human beings are deprived of basic human rights and the ecosystem is being rapidly destroyed? The ongoing experience of the crucified of this world calls for a rethinking of the mystery of the cross if preachers and communities of faith are to proclaim an authentic word of hope in the power of the resurrection in the midst of human suffering.

In a world of suffering, the last word about the cross may be that it is indeed a mystery of divine love, fidelity and solidarity, but the first word that must be spoken is of its scandal, injustice and absurdity. Not only political and liberation theologians, but most theologians reflecting on Christology today emphasize that the cross must be put in the context not only of the resurrection, but also of the life and ministry of Jesus.

As many have noted, it is no coincidence that Jesus did not die in bed. Jesus was executed as a political criminal and a religious blasphemer as the consequence of his “dangerous preaching” of the reign of God.

His healing ministry and His inclusive table companionship threatened traditional boundaries that distinguished insiders from outsiders in both religious and political realms. Jesus shocked religious authorities as He announced the forgiveness of sins, the prerogative of God alone. He touched lepers and spoke with Samaritans. He formed bonds of friendship with, and invited into the circle of His disciples, women and tax collectors who collaborated with the oppressive Roman Empire.

A faithful Jew, He radically reinterpreted Jewish tradition and laws of Sabbath observance and ritual purity. The reign of God He announced in His liberating lifestyle and His shocking parables and beatitudes, the unconditional compassion of God that He embodied in His person and style of relating, even the joy and freedom He invited others to embrace, was a profound challenge to religious and political structures of the day.[15]

In the end, the one whose entire life proclaimed “God’s ‘no’ to human suffering”[16] was betrayed by an intimate disciple, abandoned by many of His closest friends, handed over to the empire by religious leaders, sentenced by a political leader who knew Him to be innocent, mocked and tortured by soldiers, and executed as a criminal, dying on a cross between two thieves. The one who preached absolute trust in the reign of a compassionate God was left in darkness to face rejection of His mission and the utter silence of God. Some theologians even speak of Jesus as abandoned by God.[17]

The cross of Jesus, like all human suffering, raises profound questions about God and God’s fidelity and, to use the language of tonight’s lecture – about naming grace in human experience. But one of the very reasons why we need the language and symbolism of the cross is to name the depth of human pain as religious, to show that the human struggle with suffering is ultimately a spiritual crisis. Jesus’ cry continues in our world: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

In an age of massive and senseless suffering, including two world wars and the Holocaust, Edward Schillebeeckx wants to reject any version of suffering as “God’s will” – instead he underlines the scandal of the cross. He has even suggested that, in one sense, we are saved in spite of the cross of Jesus, rather than because of it. Nevertheless, in the end, Jesus faced the cross as the final consequence of fidelity to His preaching mis sion with a radical hope in the compassionate God He knew as Abba.

He filled an experience that was in itself meaningless and absurd with meaning, love and a sense of solidarity with all the innocent who suffer. He filled what was utter disgrace with grace. What Christians celebrate is not the cross, nor the sufferings of Jesus, but the power of a love that is faithful even unto death. The triumph of the cross is the triumph of God’s mercy bursting the bonds of sin and death.

It is not the cross that Christians preach, but the entire paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus. What Christians celebrate is that death and evil do not have final victory; the power of God does. The earliest Christian preaching was the good news that the death of Jesus was not the end.

In and through Jesus’ love and fidelity, God has taken on the evil and suffering of this world and broken their hold, once and for all, with the stronger power of love. What is impossible for us is possible for God. Hence the mocking tone of Paul: “O death where is your victory?” The Christian hope remains that God can and will bring life out of death, that like Jesus, we and those we love will be vindicated and transformed.

But the dynamic of hope, like the power of resurrection, is beyond human control or possibility. Only God can restore the dead to life. Do we as Christian preachers too often resort to self help or human wisdom because we are afraid to attend to the lament of our congregations and to entrust the pain to God? Do we believe that God can and will bring life beyond death?

If our liturgies and preaching are to draw us more deeply into the paschal mystery that constitutes our daily lives, we need ways of remembering and ritualizing the scandal of the cross, as well as the victory and hope of resurrection.

For the sake of authentic faith in our day, we need to allow more dissonance in the harmony of the sacramental imagination and celebration. Lament disrupts the mood of praise and thanksgiving, but liturgy is meant to reflect as well as transform human life.

David Power proposes a serious challenge for Christian liturgists and preachers:

In the present time of cultural disorientation and reorientation, there seems to be place for a fuller use of  lament in Christian assemblies, but this requires the  courage to let beliefs about God and about Providence be  questioned. We may indeed grieve over suffering and  oppression, bewail the calamities of the Jewish people,  weep over the raped earth, look with sorrow on the  church’s treatment of women, but do we ever allow this to  be a complaint against God?[18]

The first step toward overcoming suffering is finding a language that leads one out of the prison of silence, finding the language of lament and tears.[19] Naming the pain and grief and sin is part of the dynamic of naming grace. The double challenge for Christian preachers and communities gathered around the Word is to attend to the importance of lament, but at the same time, to witness to Christian hope in the power of resurrection.

All of this is to suggest that, when we listen to human experience in both its grace and disgrace, we listen for an echo of the Gospel, which brings us to the final section of our reflections. On what basis do we name grace in human experience? Where do we find the clues for recognizing, proclaiming and celebrating grace?

Naming Grace from the Perspective of Christian Symbols and Stories

We cannot talk of grace occurring in human experience without recalling that human life is interpreted, and therefore experienced, through a variety of filters. We do not have raw human experience apart from some framework for understanding or perceiving. We interpret our lives in the context of multiple traditions – the traditions of our personal histories, our family stories, our ethnic roots, our culture.

We may modify, change or even reject those traditions based on new experiences, which do not seem to fit, but initially we stand within, and are formed by, traditions. We are formed in the context of meanings, which have been handed on to us. We are given language and cultural symbols; we do not create them.

In speaking of recognizing grace at the depths or limits of human experience, we are talking within the framework of a faith tradition which alerts us to a deeper dimension in our experience and gives us a language to name that dimension. We stand within the living tradition of the Christian community. Those who have gone before us in faith have handed on their story, their pattern for understanding and living human life. It is the story of Jesus as recounted in the Scriptures, as remembered, lived and celebrated in the community, and as retold uniquely in every age and culture.

What forms the sacramental imagination – that profound confidence that God is with us, the deep trust that where sin abounds, grace abounds still more, the radical hope that in the end “all will be well”? What enables Christian communities to proclaim: “Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life, Lord Jesus, come in glory”?

What Walter Brueggemann has called the “hopeful imagination”[20] is formed by symbols, stories and lives that subvert a culture of death and despair. In an age of individualism and hatred of the stranger, Christian communities gather at an inclusive table and promise to attend to the needs of the poor and the sick.

In an age of apathy and despair, Christians gather to give thanks and praise, to sing songs of joy and resistance. At both the beginning and the end of life, Christians gather around symbols of the tomb and proclaim that the Spirit of God brings new life out of death. When sick ness threatens to alienate us from all that we have known and loved, Christians keep vigil at the bedsides of the sick and the dying. In a culture that cannot imagine faithful relationships sustained over time, Christian communities witness covenant promises of fidelity and speak words of forgiveness beyond betrayal.

In a culture of power and domination, Christian communities anoint leaders ordained to wash feet and to call forth the gifts of others in the community. As human celebrations, even the most basic symbolism of the Church can, of course, be manipulated and used to reinforce, rather than subvert, systems of injustice, but our trust is that the power of the basic Christian symbols finally escapes any human control.[21] For precisely that reason, the symbols are also dangerous to any system; they hold the power to reform the human imagination.

So, too, is retelling the Christian story dangerous. Explicitly calling to memory human suffering and the passion and death of Jesus is already part of the process of engendering Christian hope. Those memories are considered “dangerous” precisely because they move us to action and solidarity with those who suffer.

To express anger or lament over the violation of human dignity or of the earth is implicitly to express hope that the future can be different from the present. Shared stories fuel hopes, forge solidarity and empower action. But retelling the story of Jesus is “dangerous” for an even deeper reason.

The ultimate claim of Jesus’ life, ministry and death was that the compassion of God is the power at the heart of human history and of the universe – the reign of God is at hand. Christians are con vinced that tragedy can be transformed precisely because the death of Jesus was not the end of His story. In the resurrection, the Spirit of God has broken the power of the bonds of sin and death and does indeed “make all things new.”

That same Spirit has been poured out on all creation, holding open future possibilities in the most desperate of circumstances, sustaining the human capacity to endure and to hope, empowering a core of freedom in the depths of the human spirit. That hidden power of God that exceeds human capacity or imagination, the power of love at the core of all creation, is the grace that “abounds still more” in the face of human suffering and injustice. Because its source is always the utter freedom of God, not any human accomplishment, this mystery of God’s presence and power among us is always a source of surprise.[22]

The symbols and stories of Christian hope “capture the imagination,” however, only when they are proclaimed by authentic witnesses, like the first witnesses to the resurrection who risked rejection and even death in light of what they had experienced. The same symbols and stories will continue to capture the imagination today only if they are enfleshed again in living communities of hope and resistance.

Jesus did not proclaim the reign of God only in words; he enfleshed the good news He announced. Christians claim that in the resurrection of Jesus God’s power has been poured forth in the world in a radically new way. The Spirit of God holds the future open and is active in the world, fashioning a new creation, making all things new. The sacramental imagination reminds us that God’s Spirit is active precisely in and through creation and human communities.

If the Christian hope that death is not the end is to be a source of hope for a young person whose life is being cut off by the AIDS virus, for example, they need more than to hear the Gospel proclaimed. The sacramental embodiment of Christ’s compassion is expressed not only by a community gathered for anointing and healing, but also in faithful families and friends who “keep vigil” and do not leave them to die alone, in those who promise to remember their life through fashioning a piece of the AIDS quilt, in those who work to change discriminatory legislation and attitudes that isolate the sick and dying, in those who work to find a cure for AIDS, in those who console the grieving and listen to their pain, and in those who help them to find ways to be reconciled, to remember joy and to hope in the face of death.

The stories of resurrection are born amidst loss and pain, but they end in joy and hope – signs of a presence and power that go beyond the human imagination. To celebrate the presence of God in the face of suffering is to say that pain and evil shall not have the final victory. To celebrate that hope authentically is to be drawn into living witness, to do everything in our power to counter evil with love.

In Amy Tan’s novel, The Joy Luck Club, four Chinese women gathered every week for the sharing of stories, feasting and for remembering “good times in the past and good times yet to come.” One of the women recalls, “People thought we were wrong to serve banquets every week while many people in the city were starving …. Others thought we were possessed by demons – to celebrate when even within our own families we had lost generations, had lost homes and fortunes, and were separated, husband from wife, brother from sister, daughter from mother …. How could we laugh, people asked.”

She explains that “it’s not that we had no heart or eyes for pain. We were all afraid. We all had our miseries. But to despair was to wish back for something already lost …. So we decided to hold parties and pretend each week had become the new year. Each week we could forget past wrongs done to us …. We feasted, we laughed, we played games …. We told the best stories. And each week, we could hope to be lucky. That hope was our only joy.”[23]

Christian communities gather each week and celebrate not a new year, but the end of time – the feast of the eighth day. It’s not that we have no heart or eyes for pain. But in the face of it all, we gather to celebrate the resurrection, to hear again “God’s great joke.” We feast, we celebrate rituals and we tell the best stories.

Those symbols and those stories enable us to speak boldly about the grace that lies ahead of us in the darkness. In the words of an early Christian Eucharistic prayer, we proclaim: “We remember your coming in glory.” That hope is our deepest joy.

To tell the story of Jesus is to tell the final truth about the human story, and to tell the human story in its depth, as Jesus did, is to point to the mystery of God at the heart of human existence, to “name grace.” In offering the good news of the Christian story, we offer not an interpretation of human life, but rather an invitation to “come and see” and to “go and do likewise.” We invite others to make Jesus’ story their own and, in doing so, to experience ordinary human life as graced.

This is what we proclaim to you:
what was from the beginning,
what we have heard,
what we have seen with our own eyes,
what we have looked upon and touched –
We speak the word of life. (1Jn. 1:1)

An earlier version of some of this lecture appeared in the article, “Naming Grace: A Theology of Proclamation,” Worship 60 (1986) 434-448. A fuller development of the central insights is now available in Naming Grace: Preaching and the Sacramental Imagination (NY: Continuum, 1997).

  1. Dean R. Hoge, Jackson W. Carroll, and Francis K. Sheets, Patterns of Parish Leadership: Cost and Effectiveness in Four Denominations (Sheed and Ward, 1988).
  2. Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi, December 8, 1975, no. 4.
  3. In a recent survey of homiletic literature, Ronald Allen noted: “Preaching is preeminently a theological act. Yet, there is a near lacuna in our literature: we give little attention to theological analysis of the preaching event.” (“New Directions in Homiletics,” Journal for Preachers, Easter 1993, 21.) Similar observations have been made by David Buttrick, Homiletic: Moves and Structures (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987) 486; John A. Mel loh, “Publish or Perish: A Review of Preaching Literature 1968-1981,” Worship 82 (1988) 506-07; and Robert P. Waznak, “A Second Response [to David Buttrick],” Worship 62 (1988) 273.
  4. Molt, Church in Power of Spirit, 207.
  5. Ibid., 80.
  6. Richard Lischer, A Theology of Preaching (Nashville: Abing don, 1981), 50.
  7. For a very helpful overview of the distinction between the dialectical imagination and the analogical imagination, see Tracy’s The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 405-445.
  8. “Justification by Faith,” U.S. Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue Statement, Origins 13 (October  6, 1983), #154.
  9. See Paul Ricouer, “Naming God,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 34 (1979) 215-227, and “Biblical Hermeneutics,” Semeia 4(1975) 107-148; David Tracy, Blessed Rage for Order (N.Y.: Seabury, 1975) 91-131; Louis Dupre, The Other Dimension (N.Y.: Seabury, 1979); Langdon Gilkey, Naming the Whirlwind: The Renewal of God-Language (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969). For Schillebeeckx’s approach, which emphasizes a dialectical disclosure of the experience of grace as the basis for naming God at the limits of human experience, see Edward Schillebeeckx, The Understanding of Faith (London: Sheed and Ward, 1974), 78-101; and Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord (chap. 2, n. 12) 29 -79.
  10. Schillebeeckx, Christ, 62. Note also Schillebeeckx’s further reference to “what proclaims itself in experience to be an astonishing and overwhelming event in reality, correcting and crossing all our plans and achievements” (Christ, 64). See also Avery Dulles, “Revelation and Discovery,” in William J. Kelly, Theology and Discovery (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1980), 1-29.
  11. Although he is operating out of a different anthropological basis, see Gerhard Ebeling’s God and Word, trans. James W. Leitch (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1967). Ebeling argues that we need the word of God “to save [us] from choking on [our] own self because we no longer [have] any word with which to cry out of the depths of [our] self-contradiction and call upon that mystery that sur rounds [us].” (47)
  12. Rainer Maria Rilke, Notebooks of Malie Laurids Brigge, trans. M.D. Herter Norton (N.Y.: W.W. Norton and Co., 1949), 26 -27.
  13. See, e.g., Gerhard Ebeling, God and Word (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966) 42.
  14. Karl Barth, “The Need and Promise of Christian Preaching,” in The Word of God and the Word of Man (N.Y.: Harper and Brothers, 1957) 107-09. Note also Nathan Scott: “Of all the myriad issues of life which the Christian pulpit is required to handle there is none so pressing, so inescapable, and so burdensome for the preacher as the problem of suffering, the mystery of iniquity, the strange and brutal haphazardness with which as it seems at times, acute misfortune is distributed amongst persons.” Nathan A. Scott, “The Burdens and Temptations of the Pulpit,” in Preaching on Suffering and a God of Love, ed. and with a foreword by Henry J. Young (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978) 7.
  15. See John Dominic Crossan, “The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant,” The Christian Century, Dec. 18-25, 1991, 1194 -1204, regarding the profound social and political challenge of Jesus’ eating and healing patterns. For a synthesis of critical scholarship from a historical-critical perspective, see John P. Meier, “Jesus,” New Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1990), 1316-1328. See also Albert Nolan, Jesus Before Christianity, rev. ed. (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1992); Schillebeeckx, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology (chap. 3, n. 20); Jon Sobrino, Christology at the Crossroads, trans. John Drury (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1978).
  16. Edward Schillebeeckx’s phrase, Jesus (chap. 3, n. 20) 178.
  17. See Jürgen Moltmann The Crucified God (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), and “The Crucified God: God and The Trinity Today,” in New Questions about God, Concilium Vol. 76, ed. J.B. Metz (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972) 26-37; and Sobrino, Christol ogy at the Crossroads; for “apparent abandonment” see Edward Schillebeeckx, “The ‘God of Jesus’ and the ‘Jesus of God,’” Jesus Christ and Human Freedom, Concilium Vol. 93, ed. E. Schillebeeckx and B. van Iersal (New York: Herder, 1974) 110-126; Robert J. Schreiter,” “The Crucified God,” The Bible Today 28 (May 1990), 159-64.
  18. David N. Power, “When to Worship is to Lament,” in Worship, Culture, and Theology (Washington, D.C.: Pastoral Press, 1990), 165. Note Power’s further question: “Does not the very sacramen tal tradition in which we say Christ and the paschal mystery are represented seem at times to have been less than adequate? What has God got to say? Where is God, if not there? And if there, why in so clumsy a way?” (166).
  19. See Sölle, Suffering (note 7), 61-86. “People’s lives actually depend on putting their situation into words or rather learning to express themselves ...” (p. 76); “… ‘learn to suffer without complaining’ is bad advice. Nothing can be learned from suffering unless it is worked through” (p. 126).
  20. Title of Brueggemann’s book. Note also Prophetic Imagination, where Brueggemann is discussing the texts of hope in Deutero-Isaiah: “He gives people back their faith by means of rearticulating the old story. He gives them the linguistic capacity to confront despair rather than be surrounded by it” (77).
  21. David N. Power, “Sacraments: Symbolizing God’s Power in the Church,” Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America 37 (1982), 50-66, and Mary Collins, “Is the Eucharist Still a Source of Meaning for Women?” in Origins 21(September 12, 1991), 225-229, and “Liturgical Spirituality in a Pluralistic Culture,” Doctrine and Life 41(1991), 59-67.
  22. For different theological expressions of how the Spirit of God holds open future possibilities and engenders human freedom, see Karl Rahner, “Theology of Freedom,” Theological Investigations VI (New York: Seabury, 1974), 178-96; Edward Schillebeeckx, “I Believe in God, Creator of Heaven and Earth,” God Among Us (New York: Crossroad, 1983), 91-102; Jürgen Moltmann, “Creation as an Open System,” The Future of Creation (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979), 115-30; and God in Creation, trans. Margaret Kohl (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985).
  23. Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club (New York: Putnam’s, 1989) 11-12.