My co-worker asked me today about using A.I. as a resource in preaching. Great question.
I did this once, and I don’t see myself doing it again, and here’s why:
When I entered a bunch of my writing into ChatGPT in April 2023 and asked it to generate a sermon about stewardship of the earth, it spewed back a nicely organized set of sentences and paragraphs that kind of sounded like me. It was certainly readable prose. But was it deliverable prose? Was it sermonic? No. Nope.
That is because Artificial Intelligence is not alive, and a sermon must come from the life force: the preacher’s living connection to their body, their life in relationship to the Holy Spirit, the ruachhakodesh, the cosmos, creation. I cannot deliver something that was not born but generated. Jesus said that thing about not feeding our children stones when they ask for bread. Stones actually have a lot more life force in them than does AI.
What do you believe about the transmission of life, hope, love and wisdom-giving energy through the generations, through the natural world, the sacred realm and through and among human beings? The way you answer that question will inform your decision to use or not use AI as a resource in your preaching. For myself, I do not want to begin with something dead and inert and have that enter my brain and creative process. It felt to me like gulping a meal of concrete. After reviewing my ChapGPT-generated sermon, it took considerable time and intention after that consumption of cement to get a sense of the blood flowing through my veins and the creative channels opening. Such a strange sensation, to feel a sense that I need to recover from ingesting inert reproduction of my own syntax and ideas.
I want to explore the fantastic potential of AI but I will not be using it as a resource for sermon preparation.
SERMON â€œThe Anointingâ€ Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein 2002
The global Christian community enters Holy Week today, the drama of the final days of Jesus of Nazarethâ€™s life, his last meal with his closest community of disciples, his betrayal and arrest, his sham trial, his crucifixion. Today is Palm Sunday, the day that commemorates Jesusâ€™ arrival in Jerusalem, the Holy City that had been occupied by Rome since 63 AD, so for about 90 years by the time this happened.
Arriving by colt, or donkey, depending on which account you read, he is nevertheless consistently reported to have been cheered by hundreds of ardent fans and followers. If you have ever seen â€œJesus Christ Superstarâ€ which treats Jesus like a rock star, that isnâ€™t inaccurate. He was a messianic celebrity to his people (the Jews living under Roman occupation) whose lives were very hard, with very few rights under the law, taxed into poverty, expendable, and murdered en masse when they dared to rise up against Rome. There was nothing unique about Jesusâ€™ method of execution; Rome had been using this public form of torture and execution for a long time. The historical accounts are dreadful and the victims unknown and unnamed.
This is a very dramatic, crowded, busy moment in the gospel narrative. Think of protests you have been to, the noise, the clamor, the anger, the hope, the intensity. Think of marches, people upset about injustice, coming together at a gathering spot after a trek with their families, friends and children to hear admired leaders. These are all appropriate analogies since Jesusâ€™ message, although mystical, theological and religious, was always grounded in justice, in the demolishing of hierarchies of domination. He is beloved not just because of what he says and the vision he promotes of the kin-dom of equals, but for the miracles he has performed: he has healed the disabled, the chronically ill, he has raised the dead. And to his crowd of supporters, he has kicked the right hornetâ€™s nests.
I was quoted this week  in the Boston Globe as saying that Easter had deeper meaning for me as I learn more about systemic racism, the state-sanctioned brutality that is part of the unfortunate fabric of American society â€“Â that has protected the privileged at the cost of a segment of society that has been enslaved, demonized and victim-blamed for centuries. There are too many parallels betweenÂ Jesusâ€™ communityâ€™s predicament and that of colonized and enslaved peoples throughout all of history â€“Â and although Jesusâ€™ life, death and resurrection have different meanings for people depending on their religious, ethnic and cultural identity, he is for us an avatar of prophetic witness and radical, revolutionary love.Â
He is the opposite of an emperor; he is a servant-healer, an advocate. He is the opposite of the project of empire; he is the project of empathy, which in Unitarian and Universalist theological tradition, is Godâ€™s own project, Godâ€™s own longing.
Empathy is the ability to put oneself in the experience of another being: to allow the body, mind, spirit to exist with that other being, opening oneself to to feel what they feel. Some people come by this quality naturally, and being natural empaths can go hard for them. ( I have a form of empathy that causes me to feel physical aching when I see even images of injuries. Itâ€™s not a convenient quality: I have fainted during hospital pastoral visits, no matter how much I mentally prepare.)
Too much empathy can make one feel like a sponge for all the sorrows of the world, but little or no empathy is not a workable alternative. We see that today, we see it in savage, barbaric examples in Ukraine, what is being done to the people, animals and land thereâ€¦ we see it also in our own country, most recently in mind in legislative violence that dehumanizes women, and transgender youth. The world is never short of case studies in empathic absence and failure: All indecency and cruelty begin when the perpetrators of it fail or refuse to imagine the impact of their behavior on others, or on their environment, which also has its own consciousness.
So I want to look at a moment in the gospels where Godâ€™s project of empathy was lived out not by the main character, Jesus, but by an unknown woman we know only as The Anointing Woman.
Jesus has stopped for dinner close to Jerusalem, in Bethany on the West Bank. His confrontation with the powers and principalities is going to come to a head very soon. But for now, dinner with his disciples at the house of Simon the Leper.
It was the custom in those times to recline at the table and to be have the meal served by women or servants. I mention this because when Jesus presides at what we call the Last Supper, he takes on the role of servant, upending social expectations and subverting gender roles.
In the house of Simon, Jesus is in the midst of a crowded social situation, we can imagine that he and the twelve disciples are tired, as it has been a busy and highly charged time being who they are and doing what they do. Not only are the eyes of the adoring crowds upon them, so are the eyes of the political authorities. There are spies and informers around.
Out of nowhere, with no introduction, enters the Anointing Woman :one gospel account identifies her as Mary of Bethany, the three others do not give her a name. She has a jar of precious perfumed oil (today it would be essential oil) worth about a yearâ€™s wages, and she pours it out and anoints Jesusâ€™s head â€“ or his feet, depending on which version you read. This is a symbol of messianic recognition, as kings were so anointed at their crowning. But anointing a body with oil is also a ritual at the time of death, in preparation for burial, which was also the role of women in Jesusâ€™ time and cultural context. Thatâ€™s why the women were the first at the tomb on Easter morning.
But letâ€™s go back to the dinner. I imagine a sense of hubbub. People talking over each other. Passing of dishes. Food, drink, people in and out.
The woman comes into this scene and walks up to Jesus. To get the oil out of an alabaster jar, the jar has to be broken, so she canâ€™t save any of the oil, itâ€™s all flowing onto Jesus. One of the Scripture passages describing this encounter mentions that powerful fragrance.
Again, depending on which version we are reading, she is either touching Jesus on his head, or she is at his feet, and in two reports, she is crying onto his feet and drying her tears with her hair.
Tears, and oil. She does not say anything, or if she does, it was not remembered. The Anointing Woman breaks into the ( mostly male) center of activity and does this incredibly intimate, immediate thing with Jesus.
No one really knows what it means. There is no consensus whatsoever on the identity of the anointing woman or the meaning of what she does.
But I donâ€™t think we need scholars and theologians to interpret what it means. We can simply watch the moment unfold in our imaginations: She enters. She is poor and yet she carries precious oil, worth a lot of denarii. She sees this man, the savior, the promised one foretold by the prophets, eating dinner in the next room. Maybe what she saw in him is the Messiah. Or maybe what you saw was a tired man who has walked many many miles stopping to give teachings and to heal the sick in body and in heart; a man whose feet are dusty who is hungry, a man who is grateful for food.
Whatever she saw in him, whether or not she had seen him up close before, she saw him with profound empathy. And that is why I cry whenever I read this passage. Alone of all the characters who meet Jesus along the way of the gospel journey, the Anointing Woman doesnâ€™t ask him for anything, doesnâ€™t ask him to heal her, doesnâ€™t ask him questions about how to attain eternal life, doesnâ€™t touch him clandestinely so that he can heal her of a medical conditionâ€¦ all of which are fine things to ask of a prophet and healer and teacher!! They are poignant requests! But she alone, she sees Jesus as the vulnerable one. She sees what is ahead for him. She recognizes that he is in danger, she knows the outcome, she enters the room like truth itself, with love, with empathy, she pours out this beautiful ointment on him. Alone in the room, both she and Jesus understand the poignancy of what she is doing.
The disciples donâ€™t get it. They start in immediately with petty attack, why did you do that, we could sell that oil and take care of more people, what are you doing, what a waste!
She has no response. I picture her in this intimate closeness with Jesus, bringing this act of beauty and care to him that transcends words and argument. Sometimes it is not time to debate, strategize, argue and compete. The poet Jeni Coyzyn wrote, â€œThe way towards each other is through our bodies. Words are the longest distance you can travel/so complex and hazardous you/lose your direction.â€
The woman with the oil walked right to him, to the center of everything, to the center of attention, not to make a point, not to present an argument, not to get something for herself but to give, to recognize, to bring the moment from chatter to stillness, from dinner time to the inevitability of death. She infuriated everyone there who thought they knew better than her how to spend the richness of that fragranced oil but she knew exactly where it belonged: not as an item for sale, but as a blessing to be bestowed, out of her poverty a spirit of abundance.
History has not known how to interpret her, how to identify herâ€¦ or how to emulate her. We still tend to miss or distance ourselves from the inbreaking of the holy with chatter, debate, and critique. But Jesus himself is reported to have spoken in her defense, chastised the petty and critical reaction to her gesture and said, â€œwherever the story of my life is told in the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.â€
I thought, therefore, that you should also know about her.
I preached last weekend on “a conversation with creation,” featuring the remarkable place Star Island on the coast of New Hampshire whose winter caretaker, Alexandra deStigeur, is featured in this short documentary, Winter’s Watch.Â
I had preached a version of this sermon two years ago but after a year where so many people have experienced solitude, isolation and seclusion, I thought it would be worthwhile to edit and revisit. It’s one thing to consider the richness of solitude and connecting more with creation and your own inner life when you’re out and about fully in whatever social life you’ve got going, and entirely another matter when you’re living through a pandemic.
This quote from poet David Whyte rang a big bell for several parishioners who requested a copy of it, and I was happy to oblige because his framing of what constitutes a conversation is spiritually valuable. Here’s what I wrote, and what he said:
“Another of those muses of solitude is poet David Whyte. A few years ago, he was a guest on â€œThe Lonely Hour Podcastâ€ (host Julia Bainbridge) and he said something that resonates for me more now than when I first heard it in 2017:
Â Â Â Â Â I think one of the difficulties of today is that we put all of our eggs in one basket in that we try to hold the conversation entirely through human forms, and yet throughout our evolution as human beings, weâ€™ve always held a conversation with a multiplicity of qualities,
like with the blue of the sky, or the red in the sunset in the evening
or the movement of leaves, you know, at the very top of a silent wood when the breeze is coming through.
The sound of an owl in the evening.
The smell of grass, the feel of a summer breeze on your skin.
These are all conversations; these are actually all qualities and itâ€™s just very strange that weâ€™ve defined the fact that youâ€™re just not in conversation with another human being as being â€˜alone.â€™
Youâ€™re not alone. Youâ€™re just not paying attention to these other thousands of qualities that weâ€™ve co-evolved with over the thousands of years.
So one of the reasons weâ€™re lonely is weâ€™ve forgotten that we have a friendship with the sky, we have a friendship with the ground, we have a friendship with our bodies, we have a friendship with the way our bodies respond to the natural world.
May you have life-giving conversations wheverer you can find them.Â I find myself that the calendar turning to a new number did a bit of a psychological number on me. I knew in my brain that early 2021 wouldn’t be muchÂ different than most of 2020 for me personally (although, fingers and toes crossed, we’ll get that monster and his crime family out of the White House without mayhem and violence), but my heart did a little jig and thought we were going out to the theatre and dinner with friends all of a sudden. Like, “WHOO, it’s twentay-twentay-onnnnnnnnnne, I’m making dinner for six, be here Friday night!!”
For the past few days my brain has been admonishing my heart for being a dumbass, and my heart is cranky and morose. They are trying to work out their conflict and meanwhile, I am trying to be patient with both of them.