The Gospel of Muck and Filth

by Andrew Stephens-Rennie

I think I’m going to scream.

The next time I hear a sermon or a talk about The Prophetic Imagination that drones prosaically on and on about Walter Brueggemann, I’m going to flip.

I don’t think I can count the number of times in the past year I’ve heard people talk about the Prophetic Imagination (and I’m not sure they get it). Maybe we all need to read it again. Let it sink in. What is he really telling us? What is it about this prophetic, disruptive imagination that’s so important? And if it’s so important, why do we feel so inclined to undermine the whole thing by giving the ending away? It’s almost self-sabotage.

But here’s what I ask. If you’ve read it. If you’ve been moved by it. If it’s “transformed your way of thinking,” stop reinforcing the royal consciousness every time you preach. Stop preaching sermons that skip to the happy ending. Stop explaining away the world’s suffering with vague assurances that “God has a plan.”

Let’s be clear. We live in a world where God’s Kingdom is emerging, but hasn’t fully arrived. And one of the reasons we gather together week after week around the table; one of the reasons we gather together week after week to hear the story in this moment, this moment where the gospel is proclaimed and embodied once again in our midst, is precisely because we don’t yet have the answer. We don’t know how this thing is going to turn out. We have some premonitions. We have a meagre faith. But we’re still searching for answers. We’re waiting for God’s glory to be revealed amongst us.

So don’t come at me with some lecture about Walter Brueggemann and the prophetic imagination when all you’re going to do is tell me what it means. When you’re going to wrap it all up with three simple points, or a treatise on my better life now. That’s all imperial bullshit.

Let’s be honest, dear preacher: you don’t know what it means, and I don’t know what it means. That’s why we come together week after week. Each of us, all of us, we’re all still struggling to figure this whole Jesus thing out, and we know we can’t nail him down for long. Dude has a history of escaping every time we try.

A few weeks ago I was chatting with my friend Jenny, a doctoral student studying Theatre at the University of Toronto. We were bantering about theatre and liturgy, and the mission of the church (as we do). Sharing about why she thinks people come to see live theatre, Jenny shared:

We come together to crash into each other, to explore something, and ultimately to be changed.

And that’s precisely it. Just as theatre at its best helps us to artistically and poetically explore the depth and breadth of human existence, so too must the gospel be embodied in our midst. Yet so many of our sermons take the messiness out of it. They’re packaged neatly into (sometimes coherent) prose that set us all in the right direction. But do they spark the imagination? Does the language constrain us, or set us free to see the way that gospel might be manifest amongst us here, today?

I love it when I walk into a liturgical church that still processes the Gospel into the middle of the congregation. The gospel reading is processed, with the cross from the impeccably clothed altar down into the fray of human existence. The gospel. The good news of Jesus Christ leaves the holy of holies and condescends to us. There it is, in our midst. In the midst of the muck and filth, the joy and the ecstasy of our frail human existence, the gospel is spoken. It is embodied. The word is made flesh.

But what does it mean?

4 Responses to “The Gospel of Muck and Filth”

  1. pillscoffeeheresy

    brilliant. thank you

    Reply
  2. James Padilla-DeBorst

    I like stopping the Psalm before the end:
    22 ain’t your grandma’s psalm…

    1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from saving me,
    so far from my cries of anguish?
    2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
    by night, but I find no rest.[b]

    3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
    you are the one Israel praises.[c]
    4 In you our ancestors put their trust;
    they trusted and you delivered them.
    5 To you they cried out and were saved;
    in you they trusted and were not put to shame.

    6 But I am a worm and not a man,
    scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
    7 All who see me mock me;
    they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
    8 “He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
    “let the Lord rescue him.
    Let him deliver him,
    since he delights in him.”

    9 Yet you brought me out of the womb;
    you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
    10 From birth I was cast on you;
    from my mother’s womb you have been my God.

    11 Do not be far from me,
    for trouble is near
    and there is no one to help.

    12 Many bulls surround me;
    strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
    13 Roaring lions that tear their prey
    open their mouths wide against me.
    14 I am poured out like water,
    and all my bones are out of joint.
    My heart has turned to wax;
    it has melted within me.
    15 My mouth[d] is dried up like a potsherd,
    and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
    you lay me in the dust of death.

    16 Dogs surround me,
    a pack of villains encircles me;
    they pierce[e] my hands and my feet.
    17 All my bones are on display;
    people stare and gloat over me.
    18 They divide my clothes among them
    and cast lots for my garment.

    19 But you, Lord, do not be far from me.
    You are my strength; come quickly to help me.
    20 Deliver me from the sword,
    my precious life from the power of the dogs.
    21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
    save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

    22 I will declare your name to my people;
    in the assembly I will praise you.
    23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
    All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
    Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
    24 For he has not despised or scorned
    the suffering of the afflicted one;
    he has not hidden his face from him
    but has listened to his cry for help.

    Reply
  3. James Padilla-DeBorst

    stop at 18 for example…

    Reply
  4. Andrew Stephens-Rennie

    James…exactly. We’re too quick to resolve. I can imagine that the psalmist never wrote these all in one sitting (latte in hand, in a local cafe). Rather, he probably found himself reflecting over time. These psalms often feel as though there is an ellipsis…

    …a period of time, a series of experiences, a new perspective that allows him to move from despair to resolve.

    Reply

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