Enacting love

April 3rd, 2022

"The Word became flesh
and made his home among us."
John 1:14, CEB 

As the war in Ukraine raged, President Zelensky spoke to everyone. He spoke to his people. He spoke to Putin and the people of Russia. And he spoke to world leaders. After speaking to members of the US congress, an American financial leader complained, “Doesn’t the man own a suit?” Why? Because in each of his addresses to world leaders, Zelensky wore the olive-green t-shirt of his armed forces.

Yes, the man does have a suit. But now that his country has been invaded by a foreign power, things are different. What he wore to speak to world leaders was intentional. Where he stood, in front of familiar buildings in Kyiv, when speaking to the people of Ukraine—was intentional. Through these choices he was communicating the truth that he was a soldier fighting for the people he serves and loves. Who he is, what he is wearing, and where he is standing are all significant elements of enactment.

In her book, The Rhetorical Act, Karlyn Kohrs Campbell describes enactment as a proof. The speaker is an important visual and vivid proof for what is being claimed. Powerful because it is right in front of the listeners’ eyes. Zelensky’s selfie proved to the people of Ukraine that he was still there. They were not to believe the rumors or lies that he had fled across the border to safety. 

Aristotle described three types of rhetorical proof: pathoslogos, and ethosPathos is about the listeners; who they are, what is important to them, what will “move” them. Logos encompasses words, arguments, images, and illustrations employed. 

You use pathos and logos in your sermons all the time. Each week, even though you know your congregation, you think about what has happened the past week. What are they worrying about? Has a death occurred? Are they celebrating a joy, a new baby? Is there a local, national, international concern? They come to the service and your sermon in a certain state of mind. 

You explore your scripture text or texts. You study to explore what God said to the people 2 or 3000 years ago, and what God saying to God’s people today. What arguments will your listeners find persuasive? What illustrations and examples will be most engaging and meaningful for your people? You are exploring and developing the logos of your message and how you will say that.

And ethos? It is about the identity and credibility of the speaker. While Aristotle ultimately wanted to focus on the logical arguments, and he knew that these three proofs always needed to be in balance with each other, ultimately he had to admit that it was ethos listeners found most persuasive. When listening to a preacher, people wonder—is this someone I can trust? Does this person know what she is speaking about? Does he care about what happens to me? No matter how finely tuned the arguments are, designed for the particular listeners, if those listeners do not trust the speaker, they will not be persuaded. Therefore, reflecting on enactment reminds us that we, the one who is preaching, is an essential and crucial element of the moment and the message.

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Leonora Tubbs Tisdale’s book, How Women Transform Preaching, notes that the enactment, the presence of women in preaching has proved consequential in several ways. While Genesis may tell us that both men and women were created in the image of God, when the pulpit is filled only with men, people understandably come to imagine God only as male. When women are able to step into the pulpit, people are challenged to imagine God more fully. Tisdale also saw that the physical presence of women, their bodies, their voices also embodied the incarnation, reminding us that God created and has called everyone.

Christ called Mary of Magdala that first morning to “go and tell” the others that he was risen. As difficult as it was for them to believe, he had called a woman to be the “disciple to the disciples.” She was essential. She was there to enact the truth of the resurrection. She brought her experience to that first message.

Christ called Peter to go and tell. Peter, the man who denied Jesus three times, was called to enact the message. And perhaps the most unbelievable was Saul, the very man who stood watching, holding the coats of the mob as they stoned Stephen, the first martyr. Repeatedly in his letters Paul had to convince the people that he had really been called by the Christ to go and tell. He understood that they had every reason not to trust him. 

Mary, Peter, Paul each enacted the truth of the resurrection. They were vivid proof that God continued to call people to proclaim the good news, that they had met the risen Christ. In your preaching, you continue to enact this truth. You are reminding the people that God is still with us, calling us to proclaim the good news. 

With his military T-shirt, standing in the public squares of Kyiv, President Zelensky was seeking to enact the truth of the courage and hope for the people of Ukraine. It is important for us to think about what we are enacting when we preach. Everything about who we are is significant. What you wear makes a difference, it is not an afterthought. Likewise – where you stand will enact a different message. Are you in the pulpit? Are you on the level with the congregation? 

Many of you, while worshiping back in your sanctuaries, you may also be continuing to stream your services online. Facebook, Zoom, all these ways we are now reaching out to listeners has challenged everyone to reflect upon how they enact the gospel. This has been a time of experimentation. May that continue. 

One of the final contributions of women in preaching, Tisdale notes, is a less hierarchical and more invitational approach to authority. In her extensive writings, the writer/teacher bell hooks explored enactment. She came to understand that, for those speakers who are on the margins, women, people of color, ethos is difficult to establish. But that it was through enactment, who they are, their being, their experience, they can create a non-dominating position by speaking in a loving, gentle, compassionate way. Their very lives are the example of their politics. In other words, they are to be the incarnation of their message.

In our preaching we are to enact the message of Jesus, the incarnate one. We are to be the living example of God’s love. We do that by speaking to everyone, young, old, member, and stranger. We are to use the language and images that our listeners will understand, be it fishing, farming, baking. And we are to reach out in with compassion just as Jesus did. He was the very enactment of God’s love made flesh, and he is calling all of us to continue that ministry and mission.

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