Monday, August 17, 2009

The Rath of God

The picture on Facebook is, I decide, a reasonable approximation of the Russell Rathbun I know only by voice: Homiletic jazzman, trickster preacher. He delivers sermons like an actor tripping, dropping things, falling out of a chair. I’ve never heard someone make such good use of “yeah,” “ya know,” “I don’t know,” “I mean,” “uh,” “um,” and “like.” He plays up his own fumbling, repeating himself, stumbling over words, inventing on-the-spot awkward constructions of phrase and term. I have heard him restart a sermon three times, saying that he hadn’t got it quite right yet. I’ve heard him pretend to be somebody else, preaching in the wrong church. He may tell a story, fictional, personal, or historical, or he may retell a gospel tale with an alternative ending where everything goes disturbingly wrong.

Rev. Rathbun is one of the founders of House of Mercy church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Since discovering the sermon audio files on the House of Mercy website, I’ve been getting some church right here at home. Not every day, but, I confess, sometimes as much as three times a day.

Church being theatre, and me being theatrical, I have occasionally sat in the pews and wished I could coach the actors. But Rev. Rathbun has snapped something in my brain and the possibilities now seem more open than ever—even, pardon me, devilishly open.

There’s a saying in the academic field of performance studies: performing is making not faking. My excuse for not remembering who said it is that I fainted on the way to the PhD and never finished. Anyway, the question becomes, What are you making? What are we making, coming together in this way in church? What kind of moment are we making between ourselves and God? In Russell Rathbun's preaching, the awkwardness, the fumbling and stumbling, the open ordinary vulnerability become part of the sermon, part of the point. It’s all about mercy and grace, which make no sense, mean nothing, matter not a whit—unless you feel your smallness.

Rev. Rathbun is honest about the Bible, too, which makes me want to shout halleluja and shake my hands in the air in a fit of gratitude. In a sermon about Moses, he apologizes for the possible incoherence of his speculations and rapid-fire delivery. “I’m sorry, but I just have a lot of ground to cover,” he says as he picks up speed, “if I’m going to try to wrest the good news out of this founding narrative in the holy scripture where the greatest of all prophets begins his career with a murder,” trying to keep up his speed and starting to stutter, “and he and God go on to conspire to murder m-millions of children, and so I gotta go.”

With all that conscious fumbling, he’s quite smooth. In one performance sermon, he lets smooth take charge. When I first heard the drums and guitars start up, I thought, “Oh no, this is going to be awful.” But it wasn’t. Strange, insistent night sounds and Russell Rathbun mixing and blending John the Baptist prophesying the coming of Christ with newspaper accounts of a Christmas shopping stampede where glass doors were broken down and a man trampled to death. Reverend Rathbun is slippery and smart and so is the band. There isn’t really a message. The lines of the gospel and the newspaper article become like bars of music repeated and juxtaposed. Hope and brokenness and a good driving beat.

photograph by Jonathan Haynes (not the image from Facebook)

Sample sermons:
Among Us
Children of God
Concerned About Bush

Russell Rathbun’s first book is
Post-Rapture Radio: Lost Writings from the Failed Revolution at the End of the Last Century

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