My Response to The Shack–Part 1


A few weeks ago, my wife picked up William P. Young’s novel The Shack at the Christian bookstore. She read it over a long stay in Canyon and raved about it. So, I read it. I sense some real hope in this book. I’m not sure what reaches people who have stepped away from religion but it seems like this book might. I don’t know. Here’s my question: How do I affirm what I perceive to be good about this book and still critique what I view as problematic?

The difficulty that I have seen in the local church is that people don’t catch the nuance of saying–here are the things I like and here are the things I’d disagree with. They either want a clear “amen” or an unequivocal “no way.” “Yes, but” doesn’t do it for most people.

Here’s my attempt to say, “Here are some of the things I really liked and here are some things I have a problem with. ” I’ll start with a concern:

This is really more of a caveat than a critique. In the book, the members of the Trinity are characters–Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer are characters. These characters talk. Hence the author has written a book in which God speaks. I have a certain resistance to works of art in which God speaks. We have a couple of hymns like that. In “Here I am Lord,” the verses are ostensibly “God’s” call–I the Lord of sea and sky, I have heard my people cry . . . . Depending on how you read, “I was there to hear your borning cry” the voice could be that of God. I’ve always taken it to be the church rather than God but that’s just how I sing th song. The problem here is that of how close it comes to idolatry. Crafting a voice and words for God is very similar to crafting an image and the problems are the same in either situation–we form an image of God that we control. Clearly, that’s not Young’s purpose in this book. Indeed, he unsettles some metaphoric images for God that we have turned into idols. But still, my knee-jerk suspicions are raised anytime any book but the Bible portends to give voice to the words of God.

Thing I’d Like to Say But Can’t #2

There are certain moments in pastoral ministry that you have to consciously suppress the comments that pass through your mind. As Disciples we prize each one’s right (responsibility) to think for themselves which means that we must be tolerant of some of the boneheaded things people blurt out–I at least do so mindful of the fact that people have tolerated (and continue to tolerate) the boneheaded things that come out of my mouth. That being said, “Thing I’d like to say but can’t #2” is:

“How do I tell you that your theology is totally whack without making you feel worthless in the eyes of God?”

Desmond Tutu–God Has a Dream

Tutu, Desmond, and Douglas Abrams. God Has a Dream : A Vision of Hope for Our Time. 1st ed. New York: Doubleday, 2004.

Themes and Images from the Book

Transfiguration

Transfiguration Image
Transfiguration, or transmuting, is a central image for Tutu. He explains the centrality of this image on pages 2-3. He tells the story of sitting in the priory garden after having looked at a “Calvary” (“a large wooden cross without corpus, but with protruding nails and a crown of thorns”). He began to realize that the God he served could transfiguration even the ugliness of the cross into a symbol of redemption.

Transfiguration Principle
“The principle of transfiguration says nothing, no on and no situation is, ‘untransfigurable,’ that the whole of creation, nature, waits expectantly for its transfiguration, when it will be released from its bondage and share in the glorious liberty of the children of God, when it will not be just dry inert matter but will be translucent with divine glory” (p. 3).

Our role in Transfiguration
“If God is transfiguring the world, you may ask, why does He need our help? The answer is quite simple: we are the agents of transformation that God uses to transfigure His world” (p. 15).

Transfiguration Question–What transfigurations do you most long for?

Justice Frees EveryoneTutu expresses a common theme in social justice discussions: that injustice diminishes the oppressor as much as it diminishes the oppressed–both loose their humanity. Justice creates freedom, restoration and wholeness for everyone. `Freedom grounded in God“Our freedom does not come from any human being–our freedom comes from God.” (p. 14)

HopeTutu frequently relates the importance of transfigured attitudes and transfiguration of the mind. Hope is not a pie-in-the-sky in the by-and-by. Hope is rooted in a knowledge of what God has done, what God can do and what God intends to do.

Miracles–Taking note of miracles: “Just because there is more to be done, we should not forget the miracles that have taken place in our lifetime” (p. 8).

Hope in the Face of Evil–“If we are capable of such acts [acts of cruelty and brutality], how can there be any hope for us, how can we have faith in goodness? There very well may be times when God has regretted creating us, but I am convinced that there are many more times that God feels vindicated by our kindness, our magnanimity, our nobility of spirit. I have also seen incredible forgiveness and compassion, like the man who after being beaten and spending more than a hundred days in solitary confinement said to me we must not become bitter, or the American couple who established a foundation in South Africa to help the children of a black township where their daughter had been brutally murdered” (p. 12)

Anthropology of Hope–“It is only because we believe that people should be good that we despair when they are not” (p. 13).

Hope in this world–“The religion I believe in is not what Marx castigated as the opiate of the people. A church that tries to pacify us, telling us not to concentrate on the things of this world but of the other, the next world, needs to be treated with withering scorn and contempt as being not only wholly irrelevant but actually blasphemous. It deals with pie in the sky when you die–and I am not interested, nobody is interested, in postmortem pies. People around the world want their pies here and now” p. 65.

Longing for more–On page 117, Tutu tells a story of students who rebelled against the educational system that consigned them to an education that focused only on their labor capabilities. “There is something incredible in us that knows we are made for more, something in us that thirsts for knowledge and for discovering the truth. even these students who had never knowing it, in the depths of their soul yearned for it.”

God’s Presence in Suffering

“A story from the Holocaust makes a similar point. A Nazi guard was taunting his Jewish prisoner, who had been given the filthiest job, cleaning the toilets. The guard was standing above him looking down at him and said: ‘Where is your God now?’ The prisoner replied: ‘Right here with me in the muck.’ And the tremendous thing that has come to me more and more is this recognition of God as Emmanuel, God with us, who does not give good advice from the sidelines. The God who is there with us in the muck.

God does not take our suffering away but he bears it with us and strengthens us to bear it” (p. 17).

Embitter or ennoble–“It seems to be part and parcel of the human condition, but suffering can either embitter or ennoble” (p. 71). Love is what determines whether suffering embitters or ennobles. Tutu names several things we can do to create this: we can learn to celebrate other’s giftedness, act first and allow forgiveness to follow (behavioralist approach), seen yourself as a potential for blessing (p. 79), and asking for forgiveness (81).

PartnershipAnother image that Tutu uses continually through the book (beginning at page 19) is that of partnership. We are God’s partners in the work God does in the world.
Partnership with God is Partnership with one another

“Only together, hand in hand, as God’s family and not as one another’s enemy, can we ever hope to end the vicious cycle of revenge and retribution. This is the only hope for us and for making God’s dream a reality. Because God truly only has us” (p. 58).

Andy’s thought: Joining in God’s partnership requires some of us to radically transform our understanding of faith. I observe that many of us live with an understanding of faith as a transfer of goods: We meet God’s expectations (either of morality/purity or service or both) and in response God rewards us with the promises of the Gospel: heaven, happiness, freedom from guilty and shame. We cannot disdain this notion as it is the reason many of us came to faith to begin with. It is an embedded theology to which we return and it is not without biblical warrant. At the same time, it is one that gets in the way in the partnership with God. As ultimately we keep asking what children often ask when doing ‘chores’–haven’t I done enough yet? As we mature in our faith, we need to release our grip on the faith as exchange of good model and embrace more and more faith as love of God. When love of God becomes our modus operandi we engage in partnership with God for the sheer joy of being with God and not with the hopes of any reward.

Genuflecting one another–“We should really genuflect before one another. Buddhist are more correct, since they bow profoundly as they greet one another, saying the God in me acknowledges the God in you.” (p. 63). How do we find a way to convey this?

Partnership with God–“Our partnership with God comes from the fact that we are made in God’s image. Each and every human being is created in this divine image. That is an incredible, a staggering assertion about human beings. It might seem to be an innocuous religious truth, until you say it in a situation of injustice and oppression and exploitation. When I was rector of a small parish in Soweto, I would tell and old lady whose white employer called her ‘Annie’ because here name was too difficult: ‘Mama, as you walk the dust streets of Soweto and they ask you who you are, you can say, ‘I am God’s partner, God’s representative, God’s viceroy–that’s who I am–because I am created in God’s image'” (p. 62)

Family-Tutu uses the image of family to describe the relationship we have with one another throughout the world. Two characteristics of family are: (1) our ability to disagree and remain in unity and love; (2) a willingness to share.

Ubuntu“A person with ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole. They know that they are diminished when others are humiliated, diminished when others are oppressed, diminished when others are treated as if they were less than they are. The quality of ubuntu gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them” (p. 26).

Importance of Self Love

Tutu concludes chapter 2 and devotes chapter 3 to the line of reasoning that understanding God’s love for me enables me to love myself. The ability to love myself enables me to love others. Michael Card has a line from a song in which he sings, “He cannot love more and will not love less.”

Accepting Frailty–“The West has paid a high price for its disdain for human frailty. I have seen a great deal of poverty and squalor in my time, having traveled to a few places on the globe. I have seen people, rags of humanity, scavenging on rubbish dumps in Calcutta. And yet I was never more shocked by poverty as when I saw someone searching for food in an overflowing dustbin in New York” (p. 37).

Disdain for weakness heart of Nazism–Tutu gives a lengthy quotation on pp. 38-39 from “Our Contempt for Weakness” by Harald Ofstad. The argument of the book is that that the primary difference between Nazis and the rest of us is the lengths to which they were willing to go to enact their ideology. This ideology regarded weakness as needing to be destroyed.

Loving the Enemy“But if you are to be true partners with God in the transfiguration of his world and help bring this triumph of love over hatred, of good over evil, you must begin by understanding that as much as God love you, God equally loves your enemies.” (p. 41).

Love of enemies does not excuse evil deeds–“True reconciliation is based on forgiveness, and forgiveness is based on true confession, and confession is based on penitence, on contrition, on sorrow for what you have done” (p. 53).

Not turning a blind eye
“Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones is not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the pain, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end dealing with the real situation helps to bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.” (p. 56)
From Tim’s Sermon

From Tim Schomp‘s sermon July 27, 2008 at First Christian Church, Big Sandy, Texas.Three years ago this month, four young men – one a teacher, another an athlete, the third a father of a small child with another on the way, and the fourth a teenager – left their homes in the suburbs and traveled to the city where they blew themselves up in London’s subway system and on a tourist bus – killing more than 50 people – wounding hundreds of others.

This past week, an English Imam – a Muslim cleric – looking back on that horrible event, asked a reasonable question, “Why would four children of God do something like this to other children of God?” Then he asked another question, how can injured children ever forgive their attackers?

Among the seriously injured were Katie and Emily Benton – two young tourists from Tennessee. In an interview – immediately after the incident – Katie, from her hospital bed, said she was praying for the victims – and – for the bombers. That second statement surprised me, so I turned up the volume on the truck radio and listened carefully to her reasoning.

Katie and Emily, even in the wake of such a horrible act, can’t feel anything but pity for these four young men – faithful people – so mislead they came to believe they would actually accomplish some kind of justice for themselves and their cause by doing such a terrible deed.

Remarkable insight from remarkable young women – violence, even when inspired by a perceived injustice – only begets more violence, more injustice and ultimately – hopelessness.

Katie and Emily – you and I – folks of all stripes – live in a world with a prevailing mindset: justice is usually achieved by inflicting greater injury on the perpetrator- lasting peace can be won by waging temporary wars – happiness is attained through public insult, litigation or vigilante justice – communities are strengthened by ostracizing and demonizing those who scare us – the best way to get back what you’ve lost is by getting even with the one you believe took it from you.

Guilt“So often when people hear about the suffering in our world, they feel guilty, but rarely does guilt actually motivate action like empathy or compassion. Guilt paralyzes and causes us to deny and avoid what is making us feel guilty. The goal is to replace our guilt with generosity. We all have a natural desire to help and to care, and we simply need to allow ourselves to give from our love without self-reproach. We each must do what we can. This is all God asks of us

Peace“Peace is not a goal to be reached but a way of life to be lived” (p. 120).

Sermon, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Wheat and Weeds
Matthew 13:24-30
July 20, 2008

In 1975, Elton Trueblood wrote a small book entitled The Humor of Christ. In that little work, he observed that people don’t often get the humor Jesus used. We are, of course, separated from Christ by time, culture and language. And that gets in the way. But, we also fail to grasp the humor because many of us don’t have an image of Jesus as someone who could tell a joke. If we did, we might discover that Jesus had a sense of humor which we often mask by our lack of one. Jesus describes the sowing of yet more seed in yet another field. This time all the good seed fell in good soil, and things were going along quite nicely until, “While everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and then went away. The wheat sprouted, the weeds sprouted.”

Two things that might surprise us in this story about the wheat and the weeds are the stupidity of the enemy and the response of the farmer. And the enemy really is stupid. “What kind of moron goes through all this trouble?” First of all, you don’t really ask “how did these weeds get here?” They’re weeds after all they just show up. So, the enemy does something that was going to happen anyway. Second, what kind of dweeb takes time to gather weed seed for the simple purpose of using it in a surprise weed attack? I have harvested all the ryegrass seed and with it I shall rule the world! . . no . . . Finally, he goes out into the field and sows them in the dark. I don’t know about you but, I don’t dislike anyone badly enough to loose a night’s sleep over it. Much less do unnecessary yard work. These weeds do not kill the wheat. They just coexist there creating an extra step in the harvesting process where the wheat and weeds are separated out. What kind of enemy is this? In truth, aggressors in the ancient world like enemies today often attack their enemies’ food supplies. Cut off an entities basic means of support and you will conqueror them. If that was the enemies intent, then he would have burned the field or uprooted the plants.

What is being portrayed here in Jesus parable is the contrast between two systems, two approaches to life and indeed two kingdoms—on the one hand you have a system that creates evil, destruction, noxious behaviors and on the other you have the kingdom of God that produces life. Jesus told the parable to draw a contrast between these two systems, these two kingdoms. He also told the parable as a way of encouraging the disciples then as today that the kingdom which sows destruction will not ultimately prevail. Our faith is in the God who will one day collect all that produces evil and throw it into the fire. Notice that the destruction is not simply for evildoers but primarily for all causes of sin. We are not inextricably bound to assume that at the end of time, countless numbers of human souls will be sent to hell. Rather, what is destroyed in the end are the causes of sin and those entities which are dedicated to perpetuation of evil. A few comments though about the nature of the enemy.

The enemy is more about sowing confusion than in destroying crops. I have heard about “tares” all my life. I always associated tares with what we used to call “stickers.” Some weeds produce grass burs, little thorny balls that will lodge in your foot if you walk across them barefooted. They will also get tangled up in your shoelaces, if your not careful. And, they will get into your dogs feet and fur. That’s what I always thought of when I thought of tares. Painful, useless, obviously evil weeds. It gave me a great deal of pleasure to think that one day God would create a world free of stickers. But that’s not the type of weed Jesus’s audience probably imagined. What they probably imagined was Persian ryegrass or darnel—a weed the looks a lot like wheat.

The most effective tool for evil is not the obvious evils but the evil that can mimic the appearance of good. In ways that mimic the patterns of the kingdom of God. God desires that people would know wholeness and peace. Yet, people are often deceived, sometimes by well-intentioned people who are themselves deceived, into quick-fixes to their problems. The weapons people accrue to protect themselves become deadly instruments at the wrong time and in the wrong place. We see this in the religious setting all the time. Prosperity gospel preachers baptize get-rich-quick schemes profiting on the vulnerability and credulity of the poor. People desperate to relieve physical illness or pain often succumb to the temptations of pseudo-scientific plans. And in an election year, we need to be reminded that the governments we have created—have always promised to be the savior of all humanity. This year, millions of first-time voters will cast their votes for one candidate or another naively believing that indeed the person for whom they vote will truly live up to all the hype. We must remember that the Kingdom God isn’t that which looks like it will produce grain sufficient to sustain life. It truly is that which has the capacity to sustain life. Those who search for the kingdom of God will find an uncountable number of fakes to sift through and burn away.

But that’s not the only surprise that comes our way. The other surprise is the farmer’s response. How should we—those who work in the field of the Lord—respond to the presence of the weeds. “Shouldn’t we pull up the weeds? They are ugly, nasty, unproductive. They use resources that ought to be used for the plants that will produce crops. They have thorns that hurt us while we work in the garden. Look at them. They’re poser plants. They look like wheat but they’re not. There’s nothing in a weed you can use. Shouldn’t we just pull them up one at a time.” “No” said the master. “No, just tend to the plants I’ve planted. Let the weeds alone. Make sure the wheat grows.”

It would be false to assume that with all the evils in the world, the God revealed in Christ expects passive acquiescence. No we are called as people of God to speak out for justice. Whenever the weeds restrict the poor from receiving adequate resources, whenever the weeds deceive people into perpetuating cycles of prejudice and bigotry, whenever the weeds harm little children or other vulnerable people, we as people must respond. This is not a call to passivity. But rather, it is teaches us about the primary way to respond to weeds. Our primary response to the weeds is not to invest a lot of energy in uprooting them. When the church has assumed the role of uprooting evil, it has unleashed its own versions of evil onto the world. We have tried from time to time. Think about the McCarthy hearings, the witch hunts and witch trials, riots between Protestants and Catholics, the Spanish Inquisition, whenever the workers in the field have not heeded the instructions to let the weeds be, we have far too often dislodged the growing wheat and created our own sort of evil.

The response to those weeds suggested in this text is hopefulness and helpfulness. The hopefulness comes in the recognition that a day will come when God will gather all that which produces evil and will incinerate them. We will not have weeds in heaven. The helpfulness is in our emphasis on finding creative responses of good works to do in response to the evil that we see. Nurture the good seeds into life, make sure there’s wheat to be harvested when the growing season is done. Here’s a simple truth, people are generally better at offering help than they are at preventing hurt. Christ’s primary strategy for responding to evil is for Christ’s followers to amass enough good in the world so that the balance tips in favor of the good. You see this reflected in various teachings in the New Testament—Jesus said, “Let your light shine so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven.” Don’t go hunting for the source of darkness. Darkness doesn’t have a source. It’s just emerges from the absence of light. So, you respond to darkness by producing light—producing good works. Paul said it this way, “Do not be overcome with evil; but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Don’t let the weeds overgrow the garden, outgrow the weeds with wheat.

What weeds cause you the greatest stress and anxiety? I would point at just one possibilities as a way of thinking about how we cultivate wheat in response to weeds. One of the weeds that will cause people the greatest distress are weeds that hurt children. Children are vulnerable. They are vulnerable in an economic climate that makes it difficult for their parents to supply all the necessary resources for them and for their education. They are vulnerable in school where despite the most committed educators there still too few adults for kids to interact with and engage. They are vulnerable to cruelty—from peers, from adult pathologies, and from the challenges of life. How can you respond to those weeds? Make yourself available to children—we have a partnership with Blanton elementary. You could get your volunteer screen form filled out so that when we participate with them in evening activities you can also. The Mission and Outreach section has already started to publish the list of necessary items for the fall. I caught one of our key leaders last week on his cell phone. He and his wife—whose children are out of school—were at Walmart buying school supplies. In a few weeks, we’ll bring those collected supplies and we’ll bless them and we’ll send them on to our partners. What are we saying when we do this? Look at how good we are, look at how wonderful we are? NO! We’re acknowledging that this is the portion of God’s field that has been entrusted to us and we’re going to make sure the wheat outweighs the weeds.

Maybe one of the weeds that bothers you most is the weed or corporate greed. Corporate greed isn’t such a bad problem if its just about the rich getting richer but, it is the consequence of the poor getting poorer that troubles most Christians. The acts of embezzlement that caused the deterioration of corporate pension funds in the late nineties were most distressing because people who had done exactly what we ask good, hard-working people to do, were suddenly left vulnerable in the face of the future. We understand that we live in a tumultuous economic climate. Yet, we also sense that there are some people who can take the same resources and because of things they understand that the rest of us do not, they can convert those resources into sustainable livelihoods. Perhaps that’s a gift you have. Maybe one way for you to share wheat is by helping to organize financial management workshops or small group ministry. We have support groups for all kinds of purposes in this world—addictions, grief recovery, parenting children with special needs. Some of you have learned how to sow wheat in a financial field. Maybe you could organize a support group for people dealing with financial stress—part sounding board, part survival skills. You ask, “who would come to a support group like that?” . . . me.

That’s just two suggestions there are more. And friends, each time I gather with you I am reminded that you do so much to sow wheat. You are generous with your time, your talents and your money. So if you hear nothing else hear this—that is precisely the way the master intends for you to respond to the weeds of evil that seem to prop up everywhere. You are neither hopeless nor helpless in the face of the weeds. You have been given a promise and given a mission. Thanks be to God.

Things I wish I could say #1

There are certain things that as a pastor cross my mind. Things that I wish I could say but know somehow wouldn’t go as well in actual conversation as they do in my own mind. We’ve dealt with a higher than usual number of people walking in asking for assistance. What I wanted to say in the midst of one of the more recent conversations was, “I realize you have problems; I’m just not convinced that I have solutions.”

Sermon Drop In

If you were to outline Sunday’s sermon the outline would be: Introduction–12 most effective preachers, what about the twelve most effective listeners; the role of the sermon-listener is not to listen to the preacher but to listen for the word of God which the preacher may or may not assist the listener in doing. I. Sometimes the word of God does come through the sermon but this rarely happens A. It happened once in my life–8th grade; B. Churches that assume it happens regularly are vulnerable to manipulation and coercion.
II. Sometimes the sermon comes alongside the word of God. A. If the word of God is the rain; preachers are like weathercasters. They predict the weather, can tell where they think the rain is; but they cannot generate it nor can they force you to experience it; B. Scripture mediates the word of God so, going back to the analogy, study of scripture is standing in the rain. C. Personal and congregational transformation requires study of scripture.
III. Sometimes God’s word comes against the sermon.

On Sunday morning, dropped in the following thoughts around point IIC.
I was a 25 year old youth ministry when the Baylor study was published in 1996. That’s why I didn’t make the list. I feel confident that if the study were done today, now that I have preached for over a decade . . . I still wouldn’t make the list. But someone who did make the list is a Disciples of Christ preacher named Fred Craddock. If you’ve never heard Fred preach, you should. Fred is known as a winsome, folksy preacher who tells stories. In the homiletics world (that’s the study of preaching) he’s known as the catalyst of the New Homiletic movement. But, I think when it’s all said and done, Fred’s legacy will not be that he told folksy stories. I do not believe that it will be that he launched the New Homiletics. I do not really believe either of those was Fred’s really big idea. Fred’s really big ideas was this: to get congregations to read scripture; to get Christians to read scripture. His really big idea is that we learn to read scripture using the best tools we have available to us–tools of social and historical research, tools of language study, tools of literary analysis. But he has also encouraged us to read expected to hear a word from God–the word of God. In the end, that’s Fred Craddock’s legacy and why he really is not merely a model preacher for those of us who preach but a model participant in the church’s mission of listening for God’s Word.

Listening to a Sermon–additional commentary 1

Sunday’s upcoming sermon is entitled, “How to Listen to a Sermon.”  The basic thesis of the sermon is that sermons are not products of a preacher.  They are products of a congregation.  The best sermons come when the whole congregation participates in listening for God to speak to us.  When we use the phrase “Word of God” many people I know, including myself, think of scripture.  The Bible is the Word of God.  I have been more recently persuaded to say that the Bible becomes the Word of God.  It has the potential of being revelatory but that potential is not realized unless the reader enters into the text with openness.  
 
Alexander Campbell, one of the earliest leaders for the Disciples of Christ, said in his Christian System, that there is a “Understanding Distance.”  That is, around any source of sound or voice there is a circumference outside of which the voice cannot be understood intelligbly and within which the voice can be understood.  Campbell said that the center of the understanding distance with regard to scripture is God.  The circumference is humility. 
 
I would contend that if the preacher is the only one striving to come within the understanding distance, then preaching isn’t occuring.  The preacher is engaged in an individualistic spiritual discipline, helpful for him perhaps, but the Word of God is not being proclaimed.  Similarly, and this probably happens with greater frequency, a preacher can avoid coming within the understanding distance.  Members of the congregation can actually be there without their preacher and receive the Word of God despite the preachers effort to draw all the attention to himself.  But in the best case scenario, the preacher and congregation hold one another mutually accountable for entering into the understanding distance and listening for God to speak.   

Sermon, Sunday, July 13, 2008

“How to Listen to a Sermon”
Matthew 13:1-9; Isaiah 55:1-3; 8-13
July 13, 2008

In 1996, a Baylor University study identified the 12 most effective preachers according to 341 professors, religious editors and preachers. The list received national attention when Newsweek reported the results. I have heard every one of the 12 preachers–not all of them in person but some over media. I would have to agree, these are truly effective preachers. But I wonder how instructive the list is. What do we really accomplish in naming effective preachers? The announcement from Baylor said that the study reflects their commitment to “preparing ministry students.” So, naming effective preachers was meant to be exemplary for those who preach. However, effective communication depends as much on the receiver of communication as it does on the sender of communication. Put any one of these twelve preachers alone in a sanctuary reciting their sermon, and I’d say they are practicing not preaching. Sermons are delivered in the context of a worshipping community of faith. At our highest density, there are 34 sermons listeners to every preacher—there are probably more. But since there are overwhelmingly more sermon-listeners than sermon preachers, it makes more sense to name the 12 most effective sermon listeners and offer their habits as examples for the rest of us. Since it’s not really logical to do that, we might content ourselves in considering “How to Listen to a Sermon.”

The primary task of a sermon listener is to listen for the Word of God. I want to exchange meanings with you. If I were to ask “what is the sermon” the definition I think a number of us would give is that the sermon is a message delivered by a preacher during worship. A sermon entitled, “How to Listen to a Sermon” would be arrogant and self-serving if the preacher preaching it believed that people needed to listen to him or her. I’d like to replace that definition of sermon with this one: the sermon is the time dedicated in worship for the whole church to listen for the word of God. What then is the preacher doing? If it is the time dedicated in striving to hear God speak, why doesn’t the congregation just sit in silent anticipation of a word to come from God? Good question—there are actually some traditions that do just that–no preacher just a congregation sitting silently waiting for a word from God. That’s good and we ought to respect that tradition. We have a lot to learn from Quakers. But we’re not like that because we believe that the preacher can assist the congregation in hearing God’s word. We’re also a tradition that has fiercely resisted the notion that the preacher is going to get it exactly right on any consistent basis. We have said it is each believer’s responsibility to strive after God’s word. The best sermon listeners are not the people who can leave the sanctuary and recite the sermon word for word. That would be freakish actually. The most effective sermon listeners are those who can listen past the words that are spoken to the Word that is spoken which belongs not to the preacher but to God.

Sometimes, though very rarely, the word of God comes directly through the sermon. This has happened one time in my life. You’ve probably heard me say that Ephesians 2:10 got me through the 8th grade alive. Let me tell you the story behind that comment. In eighth grade, my church was in transition. We had been dealing with a serious moral failure at church. I and my peers wrestled with our disappointment and sense of betrayal. On top of that, my seventh grade year was filled with the normal amount of adolescent trauma—nothing serious but nothing really pleasant either. Our church had a Jr. High retreat—it was cold. I had to go late. I didn’t really want to be there. I had a bad attitude. And the speaker began talking about Ephesians 2:10. “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus, to do good works which God has prepared in advance for us to do.” And the preacher said that the word for workmanship in Greek is poema—from which we get the word poem. Then he said, “You are God’s poem, God’s work of art, God’s masterpiece.” And when he said, “You are God’s masterpiece” he looked directly at me. I sensed in that moment that he was speaking God’s word directly for me. But that is the only time where I felt that the sermon was the word of God for me directly—and I may have been the only one in the room who felt that. It doesn’t happen often. A church who believes that their preacher regularly and directly speaks God’s word is bound to fall victim to manipulation, coercion and the sort of evil that has dogged the church since our earliest days.

The best we can normally hope for is that the word of God will come alongside the sermon–Or more truthfully that the sermon comes alongside the word of God. The sermon can assist the congregation in hearing God speak but does not convey the message directly. The analogy that I’ve been playing with this week is that of rain. It’s a risky analogy right now because we have friends and family members living in flooded areas where more rain is not welcomed. But in this part of the world, rain is almost always welcomed. In fact, in this part of the world, the rain could rain out a visit from the President, Billy Graham and Nolan Ryan all on the same day and people around here would shrug it off saying, “Well we needed the rain.” Jesus used the analogy of the word of God as seeds that must fall on good soil. In my analogy, I want to suggest that the word of God is the rain—actually that’s not my analogy its Isaiah’s “As the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth . . . so is my word that goes out from my mouth: it will not return to me empty.” (Isaiah 55:10).

Let’s imagine that our souls need to be rained on by the word of God in order to survive. Now, let me suggest that the preacher’s role in this little analogy is that of the weathercaster. The weathercaster comes on and says, “To the best of my knowledge, using the tools I have available to me, here’s where I think the rain is.” The weathercaster doesn’t generate the weather any more than the preacher generates the word of God. And the weathercaster can’t cause the rain to fall on you any more than the preacher can cause the word of God to land in your life. If your response is to sit there and passively listen to the weather report you will not get rained on. Not even if the weathercaster tells you that there’s rain right over your house. Unless you make the minimum effort to get up off the pew (I mean couch) and go out into rain, you will be protected from the word of God (I mean rain) by the structure you’ve built around you.

Let’s stick with this analogy a little longer. Let’s say that you recognize that your soul desperately needs the rain/word of God. And the weathercaster/preacher says, “I believe the word of God/rain is there.” What do you do? You get in your car, turn on the radio to the weathercaster and start moving in the direction he said the rain would be. And something happens, you begin to watch the horizon and you look at where the clouds are and you say, “You know, the weathercaster said there was going to be rain over here but, I think the rain may be over there.” And so you make a few turns and you go to that place where you sense the rain might be and you discover that you were right. That’s the discernment that takes place when we participate together in seeking God’s word rather than assuming that the preacher is either always right or hardly every right. The preacher is a member of the community of faith neither privileged with the complete sense of God’s word nor completely incapable of assisting the congregation in finding it. But, it takes a congregation working as a congregation—people taking the risk to move toward the rain–to receive the word of God.

Every now and then people say to me, “I’m sorry but my mind wandered during your sermon.” I want to say, “it’s not my sermon it’s our sermon. But more to the point, where did your mind wander?” Because it’s possible that your mind wanders because you’re having a Walter Mitty moment and just daydreaming about what you could have been and would have been. If that’s where your mind wanders, then—fine—consider yourself chastised. But, I believe in God’s Spirit and believe that your mind could wander to that place where God’s can actually pour out rain on you. Maybe your mind wanders to a need that you read about in the newspaper or saw on TV and your wondering why the preacher doesn’t talk about our response to that need. Maybe that’s not the failure of the preacher but the success of the God’s spirit revealing to you the call that God has on your life. Maybe your mind wanders to a relationship that has been ruptured and needs to be repaired. Maybe your mind wanders to a decision that you need to submit to God’s guidance. Maybe your mind wanders because as you gaze at the horizon you see that the rain you are meant to receive is actually falling somewhere else. I’m like anyone else. I love people to say that they liked the sermon when the sermon is done. But what really excites me are those rare moments when people come to me and say, “Andy, I know this isn’t what you said but what the message made me think of was . . . .” When I hear that, I get the feeling that the word of God might be falling on good soil and the rain may be watering the earth and producing the food of life.

But the analogy begins to break down doesn’t it. How does one get into the car of the soul and drive toward the rain. What can we do to put ourselves in the position to hear God’s word? It begins, I believe by making a decision, about how God communicates to us. Both of our texts speak about “God’s Word”–God’s word as a water, God’s word as a bag a seeds that fall into different contexts. Those are metaphors for the content of God’s revelation to us. But what does that mean in our lived experience? Some say that God communicates through creation—through nature. I agree. Some say that God communicates through relationships—particularly the relationships we have in church. I think that’s important also. But, our faith as a church consistently says that God most fully communicated to us through God’s Son—Jesus Christ. His incarnation, teachings, actions, death, burial, resurrection, commissioning of the church and ascension are the fullest disclosure of God we have. It is the disclosure we claim as Christians. Further, we believe that God revealed God’s self to us in the covenant relationship God had with Israel. The principal witness we have to these acts of revelation is scripture—which we sometimes refer to as the Word of God. I do not believe that scripture is so much the word of God as it becomes the word of God whenever we allow it to be reflected and absorbed in our lives. Mark Powell said it best, I think, when he said, “There is something almost blasphemous about calling a book that lies unopened on a coffee table, ‘the Word of God.’ According to scripture itself, God’s Word is an active, dynamic force that never returns void but accomplishes that for which it is sent (Isa. 55:11). The Word of God cleanses, heals, creates, judges, and saves but it does not sit on coffee tables. A better formulation than saying, The Bible is the Word of God, would be to say, The Bible becomes the Word of God in those who receive it” (What is Narrative Criticism, p. 98).

Sermons then ought to consist of scripture interpretation. It’s what makes this sermon ironic because typically a sermon examines a particular text and I’ve not said much about the texts we’ve chosen this morning. If the sermon is the time for the church as a congregation to listen for God’s word then the whole congregation ought to be involved in the interpretation of scripture. I encourage you therefore to examine the texts that serve as the basis for the sermon. You can attend adult Bible study on Sunday nights where generally we study the sermon reading for the next week. You can do that at home whenever you get your newsletter and see the text that has been identified. Generally speaking, the second reading on any given Sunday is our focus text. At minimum, you can come into the sanctuary and before the service begins you can read and reflect on the text. By actively engaging our own study and reflection on scripture we travel past the beaten road, pull the weeds, and deepen the soil so that God’s word can land and receive water, take root and give life.

Sometimes the word of God comes directly through the sermon. But that doesn’t happen often and I would warn you against ever believing that any preacher ever delivers God’s Word directly on any consistent basis. Sometimes, hopefully this occurs with greater frequency, the sermon comes alongside the Word of God and is an aid in the congregation’s appropriation of God’s word. But finally, and this must be said–Sometimes the word of God comes against the sermon. Sometimes what the preacher is saying is so antithetical to what God desires us to appropriate that the word of God actually negates what the preacher says. This is not to say that we get to deny the holiness, godliness of every sermon that we disagree with. But every sermon gets something wrong and some sermons get everything wrong. In those moments keep in mind that the most effective sermon listeners are not those who critique the sermon or criticize the preacher but those who listen for God. Listen, therefore, for what God might want to communicate to us in the time we allocate to sermon. It feels like rain.