Unexpected Blessings: Festival of Young Preachers 2012

by Jason Ketz

This past autumn, about the time that students hit their post-midterm academic lull, I was presented with a curious opportunity. One of my professors, Fr. Sergius Halvorsen, invited members of his homiletics class to apply for an all-expense-paid trip…to Louisville, Kentucky…over Christmas recess…to attend the Festival of Young Preachers!

Now to some people, this sounds like the opportunity of a lifetime, while for others this doesn’t quite make their “bucket list.” Myself? I was somewhere in the middle. It would be Christmas break—perhaps my last career opportunity for three consecutive weeks of holiday. And, at 29, I would be the oldest “young preacher” at the Festival. I was also wary of the subject. We all know that homilies, even when divinely inspired, can occasionally be a bit drab, so the prospect of hearing 30 homilies in three days was not without its own risk. On the other hand, I hold preaching in very high regard. And I had a hunch that this conference might be a little more dynamic than a typical Orthodox Divine Liturgy homily. Many participants were from denominations or persuasions that had little structure to their worship beyond scripture and preaching. This was their bread and butter, so to speak.

So in an audacious (if scriptural) fashion, I replied with those famous words

“Here am I. Send me!” (Is 6:8).

And so, I was sent.

The faculty of St. Vladimir’s seminary very graciously provided for my traveling, meals, accommodations, and the festival registration fee, all so that I could preach a brief homily to my peers and listen attentively to their sermons as well! I would like to thank Fr. John Behr and Fr. Chad Hatfield, and the SVS Board of Trustees for making my attendance at this conference possible, and also Fr. Sergius Halvorsen for accompanying me on this journey. I will not soon forget this wonderful experience!

The Festival of Young Preachers is organized by The Academy of Preachers, and is billed as the largest and most ecumenical gathering of its kind in the country, with its 120 young preachers representing over 30 denominations of Christians from over 30 states and Canada. The gospel message upon which we were to preach was Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, taken from the Gospel of St. Matthew, chapters 5–7. From this text, we could preach on any section or subject that we considered appropriate.

So as a young preacher, I was asked to preach on the preaching of our Lord, to a room full of preachers! “Curiouser and curiouser…”

And where does one begin with the Sermon on the Mount, anyway? Even after acknowledging that it takes a life lived faithfully to do this passage of scripture justice, the text is so rich that it is hard to get a foothold. I figured that several of my peers would take the Beatitudes and ideas of faith in God, prayer and what-not, so I thought I would try to unravel some of the features of the Sermon that have always puzzled me.Fr. Sergius Halvorson, assistant professor of Homiletics at St. Vladimir’s (left), served as Seminarian Ketz’s mentor

I found myself struck by a brief passage near the beginning: Matt 5:17–20. Christ explains that he is here to fulfill the Law, telling us

“unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20).

What fascinates me is the seeming contrast between this appraisal of the Pharisees’ legalism (which our righteousness must exceed), and Jesus’ famous rebuke shortly before his Passion, which we hear each year at the (Bridegroom) Matins of Holy Tuesday. “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees…” (Matt 23:13-39). What is “exceeding righteousness”?

So I prepared my homily as best I could, drawing on the advice of my ‘coach’ Fr. Sergius and all of studies and life experiences to date, all while trying to imagine what, precisely, was in store for me in Louisville this winter

The conference began on Monday afternoon with a workshop on the “first line” of a sermon. Was this exercise to set the stage for the whole conference? Twenty-five of us gathered with two professors of communications and spent two hours practicing and discussing and rehearsing first lines of speeches and sermons. The workshop was technical and theatrical, and (deliberately so, according to its leaders), somewhat awkward. At one point, we were deliberately saying each others’ opening lines like movie stars, just to see if we could convey different messages with our tone of voice. While my understanding of the value of the first spoken line in an oration deepened considerably, my expectations for the festival were thoroughly confused by some of the memorable one-liners of advice in that workshop. At one point, we were told to “take a good breath before you start preaching, because that’s the last good breath you’ll get.” OK, I guess. But don’t all speakers (and preachers) pause to take a breath if they need to? I soon learned otherwise.

The festival began with an evening worship service, the main feature of which was scripture and a homily, followed by a reception. I was introduced to 12 of my peers, whose homilies I would hear in coming days. The group was an incredible cross section of America—people from all walks of life in all regions of the country. Most people were (undergraduate) college students, though there were two high school students and an itinerant minister who had been preaching for 14 years (he started at age 12)—all in this small group. High church, low church, non-denominational. We were quite an unlikely group of friends.

We continued the next morning with another worship service. After this, five rooms were set up for concurrent preaching. It wasn’t possible for all of us to hear everybody, so they organized things as best the could, giving us each 15–20 minutes, along with an introduction, scripture and prayer as appropriate, and a brief evaluation by a professional in homiletics or communications after we were finished. The first day was reserved for return students, presumably to give the first-time guests an extra evening to polish up our sermons based on what we saw and heard.

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And nothing could have prepared me for the variety of preaching that I heard in just three short days!

The preaching I have heard throughout my life is all variation on a single theme: the paced, pointed, crafted message designed to engage the intellect. Most of my experience as a listener is in the Orthodox Christian liturgy, but even in the occasional wedding or funeral I have attended outside the Orthodox Church, the preacher’s style has had a familiar (slow) pace and gentle guiding tone. Apparently this is only a single type of flower in the garden of Christian preaching.

Here at the festival, the first thing that struck me was the repeated confirmation of our workshop coach’s advice on breathing before speaking! Though I don’t think I’d attempt it, many preachers are able to talk for three or four minutes before pausing for a dramatic breath. Several preachers controlled the emotion in the room with all the skill of a professional musician. Volume. Pitch. Punctuation. Crescendos, rhyme, meter, repetition, alliteration. I myself had never seen such deliberate speaking on a Sunday morning. None of these preachers let themselves get in the way of their message, but they used their public speaking abilities in ways I had never even considered! On the other hand, many preachers handled their homilies like rhetorical bible studies, asking deliberately paced questions, and inviting us all to walk through the scriptures together to find answers. There was such diversity in preaching that I can’t hope to describe it!

Yet for all the variety, these sermons shared a common ground. The soil from which these homiletic flowers grew was the gospel: our Lord’s call to repentance, and his promise of salvation. In fact, a point on which Fr. Sergius and I both mused was that, with only the slightest bit of theological editing, the texts of many of these homilies could be preached at any represented denomination’s Sunday service. But what would my homily sound like if it were offered by the preacher at a Southern Baptist or AME Zion church? And how would I deliver their homily if they gave me their manuscript? Preaching is so much more than words on paper! Even an attempt to describe my experience falls flat.

The festival continued with an evening worship service at the local Roman Catholic cathedral, and many more homilies on the Sermon on the Mount the following day. My predictions on content were only partially correct. Many preachers I heard discussed the Beatitudes, but never exclusively. And there was not a moment in these four days that I had the sense of “wash, rinse, repeat.” Every sermon was as unique as the preacher giving it, and I benefited from hearing every one.

We concluded our festivities with a wonderful banquet recognizing all of us who preached, all of those who help us preach, and especially  those who organized the conference. There seemed to be unanimous agreement that the breaking of bread (and other great food) together at a meal was the appropriate way to seal the friendships we had each begun over these few short days; to recognize the common roots of our diversity.

My last great question heading into the conference was whether I’d be burned out on the Sermon on the Mount. After 30 homilies, how would I feel about the “salt of the earth,” or the Beatitudes, or “lilies of the field,” or “turning the other cheek”? To my surprise, I am more excited than ever, and because of this excitement, I’m also a bit saddened. This festival has forced me to confront a strange reality within the Orthodox Church. Our lectionary seems to give Christ’s great lesson from the Gospel of Matthew “second billing.” The sermon is read in the first weeks after Pentecost, and almost entirely on weekdays. Almost nowhere in the Orthodox Christian world is this incredibly powerful portion of the Gospel read liturgically and then preached. This is not a critique of our lectionary—by no means!—but it is our loss that we don’t all read these verses of scripture together and rejoice in them as a community of believers. Realizing this, I am all the more thankful for this opportunity to attend a festival of preaching in which the Sermon on the Mount was the selected text!

Sadly, I will not be able to return to the festival next year, but I hope and pray that our seminary and Church will continue to send representatives to this Festival of Young Preachers. St. Vladimir’s Seminary was a welcome presence at the assembly, as was Holy Cross School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts. I hope that we will all see this festival as an opportunity for us to embrace the fullness of our faith, to share our joy with the world, and to be, as individuals and as an Orthodox Church, the trumpets of our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ.


“I can’t imagine paradise without you!”
The Author of the Law instructs his disciples (Matt 5:17–20)
by Jason Ketz

People love to follow rules! Right from the start — from our youth up, we have followed rules. Even as kids, we seemed to thrive on rules. We would even make games out of rule following. Did any of you play follow the leader? The whole point of the game is to follow rules, and kids love it! As adults, we take rule following to the extreme. We have laws to protect people, customs to protect the status quo, and sometimes we have rules ‘just because.’ One set of customs told us each what to wear today. A slightly broader ordinance told us we had to wear some clothing. Etiquette tells us not to slurp our soup at lunch. And those of us who drive are familiar with a whole book of traffic laws.

These laws and rules and customs support our culture. Like the wooden frame of a house being constructed, law is the framework of our society. The rules outline how we all live together, how we all agree to interact with each other. God gave the Law to Israel for this very reason. The Law of Moses brings God’s children together as one culture — one people. Authority, purity, sacred places and sacred spaces, tithes and sacrifice — all of these commands, all of these precepts outline how a society lives together in God’s presence. And the Law is the framework of God’s covenant — God’s promise to remember us, and our promise to remember God. We believe this, but at some point, we forget our place. We focus in on the promise — on God’s blessings as rewards for our obedience. We try to earn these blessings, to earn God’s love and approval through our willingness to follow his commands. But the moment we think we understand how to earn blessings, we become the judges. We become the administrators of the law, and we interpret the law to best serve our purposes. And other people become a threat to our blessings. Suddenly, we’re no longer neighbors, but adversaries. The rules and laws no longer unite us, but divide us. Now we’re not working together. We’re competing against each other.

We play with laws and ordinances, and even with commandments and traditions like a poker game. Constantly trading cards, betting and raising, bluffing and calling each other’s bluff, exploiting the rules to our advantage. Making sure that we get the rewards, even at somebody else’s expense. Does anybody remember the company Enron? The most hated company of the last decade. They used their authority to hijack the power grid. They blackmailed state governments with rolling blackouts, taking taxpayer money in return. And they spent their employees’ pensions on their personal riches, until the whole company buckled under the greed of just a handful of executives who were drunk with authority. Ponzi schemes, fraud, mafias and drug lords. With the wave of a pen or the click of a trigger, any of us can take a law we all agree on — a law meant to help us interact — we take that law and use it competitively. We use it to our advantage.

God’s covenant is not a private agreement. The Law of Moses promises eternal life to all humanity. It’s our way to paradise, and it’s available to everybody. We know this. We believe this, and still we figure out ways to abuse and exploit the ordinances of our Lord. Just as Enron used the power grid, we try to use God’s promise of paradise to our advantage, and to our neighbor’s disadvantage. When we imagine ourselves in heaven, we each have somebody who is not in that dream. All too easily, we can imagine paradise without somebody. What a horrible thing to say, right? That we could imagine paradise without a person?! And yet we do so constantly. Sure, we don’t set out to think these evil thoughts. We set out to help people. We know that God forgives sinners, and that God loves everybody, so we just want people to change, to repent. To be saved. Because we know that all people will be judged by God. And as students of the word, and students of the law, we know the law by which we are judged. we have heard the commandments — all of God’s “do’s and don’ts.” From Moses and the Prophets and Jesus and Paul. We know that we cannot relax them.

Today’s text tells us this. So we have to make people understand — we have to help people, get them to somehow hear the same law we’re hearing. And oh, do we know how to manipulate people with this idea of sin. Sexuality is one of those enduring examples of church authority. Our way of “helping the lost sheep.” Whether its preference or promiscuity, we comment
on the disparity between what we see in the world and what we read in the scriptures. Some of us preach. Some of us write. Some of us pastor, and some of us keep our mouths shut and do the judging in our hearts and in our minds. But every one of us has rendered a judgment against another human being. Our Lord has come today to knock us off our little thrones of judgment, because we’ve got it all wrong. Christ cannot imagine paradise without us. He can’t imagine paradise without us, so he doesn’t want us imagining paradise without
each other. Because we are not the judge. Our Lord meets us today in the midst of our legal competition, in the midst of our wicked card game of rules and customs and rewards and punishments. Christ takes Moses’ seat on the mountain, takes his place as the law-giver — and he gathers us all around for another familiar game of cards. And this time he’s the dealer.

There is only one round of cards being dealt, and the stakes are very high. Christ tells us all that

“not one iota of the law will pass away” (Matt 5:18).

We like to judge by the law, so the Author of the law can show us how it’s done. Jesus offers a radically intense reading of the commandments.

“You have heard in the law…dot dot dot… but I tell you even more” (Matt 5:21f, 27f, 33f).

He teaches us that hating our neighbor is the same as murder (vv 21–6). He tells us that looking lustfully at another person is the same as adultery (vv 27–32). The Law structures and governs and judges not only our actions, but also our emotions and our thoughts. All of the chips are in now, and we’re starting to see that we have a lousy hand of cards for this final round. As Christ has now explained the law of Moses, it’s impossible to follow! Game over, the house wins. Every one of us — all human beings will fall short under this law. Woe to us, scribes and Pharisees. None of us will be blameless in a judgment. None of us will be righteous by following the letter of the law. In fact, he tells us

“unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will not get into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20).

But suddenly this isn’t the same sleazy backroom poker game we know and love. Something more is going on here. Christ unexpectedly unites himself with — well, with the losers. He blesses those who can’t follow the laws, who struggle with rules, who aren’t the most competitive. The outcasts, the downtrodden, the hurtin’ people. Christ unites himself to these people, because they are his creation. They are his chosen people. Long ago he promised to remember them all, and today he honors this promise. Our Lord remembers those we would just
as soon forget. And he blesses them (Matt 5:3–12). He can’t imagine paradise without them.

Blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who are persecuted, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Christ cares about his children. He can’t imagine paradise without any of us. And if the people that we would just as soon forget are an image of our Lord…well that’s bad news for our exclusive ideas of heaven. Now, if we imagine paradise without each other, we’re imagining paradise without Christ. And paradise without the messiah — well, there’s another name for that place. But instead of beating us at our own game of judgment, our Lord does something completely unexpected. He lays down his hand of cards and walks away from the game table. He reveals the law in a new light. This new righteousness our Lord speaks of. He’s not saying try harder, be craftier, or hang in there. He’s telling us to stop playing this silly game. Today Christ instructs us to love each other, because he loves us. This is the great law of the law-giver; the great lesson given by the teacher. He teaches us on the mountain, and he shows us on the cross.

“I can’t imagine paradise without you.”

And when we return on Easter Sunday to hear to hear Jesus’ second sermon on the mount — we witness the resurrection — the perfect display of Love. The Father’s love for his Son, and our Lord’s love for his creation. Love is action and love is a gift freely given. Throughout his ministry, Christ shows us how to give this gift of love to each other. Every time he healed a person or cast out a demon, or fed a group of people, he brought them back into his community. He singlehandedly dissolved all of the exclusion we had mistakenly created. He tears down our walls, he breaks our defenses. He takes our rules and our laws and our customs that divide us, that make us unique, and he unites us once again as his creation. Christ waits for all of us in paradise — in the resurrection. And as we journey through life in hope of the resurrection, We help each other along the way. And we help each other through God’s blessings. Because God’s blessings are gifts, not rewards. And we are stewards of these gifts, not recipients. As stewards, we share our blessings with others — with the least of the brethren (cf. Matt 25:31–46). Those hurting people that our Lord has recently blessed, the ones who have nobody else to look after them.

And what better place to start caring for each other, to start helping each other, to start loving each other than through basic needs. One of the great fathers of the church said, “to a hungry person, God is a loaf of bread.” As we give of our possessions, our time and our talents to those who need them, we offer hope. We offer hope in God’s promise. Hope in paradise. Hope in the Resurrection. Hope in our Lord. Every time one of us gives a coat and a cup of soup to a homeless person, both people suddenly understand Christ’s love. The scales fall out of our eyes, and we realize something. We realize that we can no longer imagine paradise without this other person. These loving interactions with each other are glimpses into the kingdom. The fiery red sky before the brilliant sunrise.

Our Lord’s great lesson is that we love each other. We give to those in need. We offer our strengths and our blessings to those who need them. But the least of Christ’s brethren, the weaker brother or sister — they not only live somewhere else, in shelters or slums. In fact, they are not even outside of this room. There is no “they” but only “we.”

So as we pause for a moment from our busyness, from our anxiety, from our theology — as we stop playing poker with all our rules and customs and expectations, we encounter our Lord. We encounter our Lord as we pause to ask the person sitting beside us how they’re doing today. Or maybe even “what’s your name?” We encounter Christ the moment we honestly say to one another

“I can’t imagine paradise without you.”

Christ gives us each other to prepare us for the kingdom of heaven, through our love for one another. As we care for each other, little by little, and day by day, we come to understand the depth of Christ’s love. Today he has opened his law to us once again. Today he has renewed the covenant, and today he has invited us to his heavenly kingdom. Today we rejoice, because Christ has said to us all

“I can’t imagine paradise without you.”


About Fr. John A. Peck

Director of the Preachers Institute, priest in the Orthodox Church in America, award-winning graphic designer and media consultant, and non-profit administrator.
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