This post continues a series of essays on preaching from the perspective of lay people. Previous entries may be found here.
I am thankful for the men and women called to pastor parishes around the globe. Their love for the people they pastor is a great gift. They give of themselves to serve in a variety of ways. And this love is coupled with a love for the people in the their broader community, their nation, and their world.
It is no accident that these loves come out in their preaching.
Indeed, it would be a blot on their character if this were not the case. If you love someone, you will desire the best for that person. So, when preachers look out into their worlds and they see people hurting, people in great need, people without hope, they naturally want the best for those people. It is a logical step to enjoin the people in their care to their God-given task in discipleship to serve the world.
The problem is that when these preachers look to the scripture appointed for the day, they all too often skip directly to what we are to do. In a culture that is strongly geared to action, this inclination is strongly reinforced. We are a people who constantly ask, “What have you done for me lately?” The TV constantly reminds us how much work is left in the world. I’ll bet that most vestry selections are based on how much the person has done for the parish. So the main question asked about the biblical text is, “What does this say we should be doing?”
For their listeners, a constant diet of “do-more-ism” leads in several directions. If you are character disordered like me, you say to yourself, “I’ve done enough” and stop listening. If you tend to be neurotic, you feel guilty that you haven’t done enough. So, while the guilt feeling lasts, you make plans to do more. Unfortunately, guilt never lasts long enough to go from planning to action. And the cycle starts all over. Most people can only stand so much of that cycle and eventually they stop listening or stop coming.
Then there are the people who take that preaching to heart and work hard in serving the world. All too often, they are like that soil in the parable: they sprout quickly, but in the end burn out, because their roots don’t go very deep.
A fortunate few, because of genetics or upbringing (or a combination of the two), spend their lives in such service. They often get “St.” in front of their names if noticed, but they don’t really care if they are noticed or not. If they are in the room to hear you preach, chances are they’re not listening anyway.
If this is not enough to get you to reconsider your preaching habits, let me point out the most obvious thing: in the liturgy, the sermon comes right after the reading of the Gospel. This is no accident. And for that matter, it is not just the Gospel it follows — three other readings from Scripture have just been heard. It’s not just that the content of all four readings needs to make it into the sermon. Rather, the sermon ought to be informed by the sort of thing those readings are. Let me explain.
The Old Testament reading is a rich thing all by itself. With no question, the prophets call us to justice. There are implications for our lives in morality and ethics here. And certainly, preaching must call attention to this. More than anything else, however, the Old Testament ushers us into a story. It is the prime narrative of “salvation.” The creator God has started a process to restore all things to God’s self. Make note that in that action, God sets the deep pattern. God calls Abraham first and then gives him his marching orders. Then God saves a people out of slavery, and then gives them Torah. This deep pattern must be the deep pattern of your preaching!
The Psalms gives us simple but profound truth: we can come to God in worship just as we are. The Psalms show us there are no boundaries. Our losses, angers, joys, sorrows — even our hates — are allowed in. This is scandalous to the spit-and-polish mode in which we normally operate. The fake Sunday smiles are driven away by the Psalms. Are you brave enough, preacher, to preach like the Psalms “preach”?
The Apostle Peter said of Paul’s writing that they are “hard.” We do need the skills you have and have been taught to get into these writings. Let me point out, however, that the deep pattern found in the Old Testament is found here. I once heard a speaker say, “Indicative comes before imperative.” What is comes before what should be. In some circles they say, “what’s the ‘therefore’ there for?” Preacher, please don’t give us the imperative without first giving us the indicative.
Last, but not least, comes the Gospel. In mainline Protestant circles, the gospel reading has become the prime focus for preaching. This is in large part reaction against certain preaching that centered on the epistles. To the extent that this helps to bring balance, it is a good thing. The deep irony here is that often the gospel-based sermon isn’t the good news the gospel purports to be. Most people, when confronted with Jesus as only a good example, will quail at the thought of being faced with him, aside from the problems of walking on water or turning water into wine. He bids us “love our enemies” and “forgive.” He serves all he meets, and gladly goes to his death, misunderstood and despised. The honest listener says to herself, “impossible.”
Thanks be to God that the gospel is not a road map for us to do the impossible, but it is the climax of the story. God, who got it started, and powered it all the way, has now brought it to an end. I say “an end” in contrast to “the end.” There is a cosmic “what’s next.” There is a sense that we have been called on stage to play our parts in what is coming.
My plea, preacher, is that before you call us to that role (and by all means do that), before you ask us to do something for Jesus, that you always start with what Jesus has done for us.
Charlie Clauss is a technical support representative for a company that builds humidification equipment.