This past Sunday I preached about the most often preached really stupid sermon. My congregation claims I preached a really stupid sermon. I set myself up for that, didn’t I?
Preaching is an interesting part of the whole ministry deal. I have a feeling it looks easier to do than it is. In past churches, when it came time for my vacation, one of the church members, usually an Elder, would take that opportunity to preach. Upon my return, the fill-in preacher’s reaction would be, “Gee, I’d hate to have to do that every week.” That’s pretty much how I feel about it too. A few of years ago I heard a preacher put preaching in this context: “Every week preachers perform on a stage that no one want to be on to say what no one wants to hear in a theater where no one wants to buy a ticket.” My job is to tell you the truth, which is often difficult to hear, and then I expect you to pay me. What is wrong with that picture?
Contrary to the popular thought in my congregation, long, long ago in a galaxy far away, I really did go to seminary. While there they attempted to teach me now to preach. Or, at least, they made me take some preaching classes. In seminary I was taught that every good sermon has three points, a poem and a prayer. Like most of the things I learned in seminary, this information has not proven to be particularly helpful in the practice of real ministry. But, with no frame of reference, I believed what they taught me. For a couple of years my listeners suffered as I carefully explained the meaning of the text in the original languages and developed in detail the historical context of the passage. Not too long into weekly preaching, a friend was kind enough to explain to me that almost nobody in the congregation really cares what the original languages say and the historical context was probably a big hit in seminary but in reality nobody but seminary professors and their students much care about that stuff.
Those comments sent me home with my tail between my legs and much to think about. I came to the conclusion that my job is to communicate God’s Word to His people to the very best of my ability. It is a daunting task. Quite honestly most people don’t have the attention span to listen to, much less remember, three points and a vast majority of people don’t really care much for poetry. I have come to believe that if I can get across one point, it has been a good day. During this time of reflection I made a conscious decision to quit preaching and to start communicating.
Something else I learned about preaching, I didn’t learn in seminary but picked up from listening to other preachers preach. That was the basic outline to a very common sermon. The outline is simple, easy to remember and basically useless. It is the outline of the sermons we most often hear preached. And, in my humble opinion, is a really stupid sermon. See if you can identify with this three point outline. Have you ever heard it anywhere before?
- God is Good
- You are Bad
- Try Harder
The first two points are absolutely true. We find these two to be true through our personal experience and from what the Bible has to say about them. The scriptures teach us that God is a good God. “I will give thanks to the LORD because of his righteousness and will sing praise to the name of the LORD Most High.” (Psalm 7:17) “The LORD is gracious and righteous; our God is full of compassion.” (Psalm 116:5) “The LORD is righteous in all his ways and loving toward all he has made.” (Psalm 145:17) If we are paying attention in our walk with God, our life experiences tell us that God is good.
The sermon tells us that we are bad. Again, scripture and life experiences bear this out to be the truth. Way back when I was studying psychology in college, the psychological theory of Transactional Analysis was popular. It produced a popular phrase: “I’m Okay and you’re Okay.” It sounds nice and it is a catchy phrase, but it is incorrect. I believe Christianity says it this way: I’m not okay and you’re not okay and that’s okay.” It’s okay because of God’s grace. The scripture addresses the issue clearly in Romans 3:23. “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
We human beings have problems and struggle with our inherent sinfulness. Some of us are in denial. We desperately want to convince ourselves and others that we are good… that the things we do and the attitudes we have are not sins but, instead, poor choices and mistakes. We reserve the label “bad” for a special class of people like Hitler. We may sin as the Bible defines it but, we tell ourselves, we really are good people. We consider good and bad as relative by comparing ourselves with others instead of God. This works since we can always find someone worse than we. I watched prisoners do it all the time in my years working in the prison system. My comment when I heard these comparisons being made was to simply state, “You are in prison, Bubba.” That never went over well. But most of us, when we are honest with ourselves, already know that God is good and we are bad.
My question about this basic sermon is, what is with the try harder? I don’t know about you but if I could try harder and do better, I would. It is the try harder part that strikes me as stupid.
Again I refer to the wonderful story Mike Yaconelli told of attending his child’s Jr. High track meet. “One of the most interesting things about kids' sporting events is the parents' reaction to their children. I attended my daughter's track meet. On the fourth and final lap of the boys' mile run, everyone was clumped together except for the two front-runners who were leading the pack by a few yards. As the runners came toward the finish line, the crowd began cheering wildly. Just then, I happened to look back, and there, hopelessly last, was a short, portly kid who never should have walked a mile, let alone run one. His entire body was wobbling toward the finish line, and his bright red face was twisted in the kind of pain that made me wonder if death was near. Suddenly, I was brushed by a frantic parent who was leaping down the bleachers to the railing surrounding the track. It was obviously the poor boy's mother. She then yelled at the top of her lungs, "Johnny, RUN FASTER!" I will never forget that moment and the look of hopelessness on Johnny's face. He had to be thinking, "Run faster? Run faster? What am I? An idiot? What do you think the problem is here – I just forgot to run faster? I'm running as fast as I can!" I don't know how many times I have felt just like Johnny. I attend church on Sunday, weary from a week of failure and what does the pastor say? RUN FASTER! I attend a seminar on time management, desperate for some encouragement and new insights, and what does the seminar leader say? RUN FASTER! I come to a church spiritual retreat to find calm in the midst of the chaos in my life, and what does the minister say? RUN FASTER! Isn't it ironic that the result of most conferences, retreats, sermons and seminars is not to make us feel better but to actually make us feel worse?”
I have a word from God for you. God says, “Don’t run faster. Sit down. Rest. I’ll help with your load.” Jesus put it this way: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
Jesus also knew that I could use some practical help. How can I do better? His point is, spiritual growth is not running faster: as in more meetings, more Bible studies, and more prayer meetings. Spiritual growth usually happens when we slow our activity down. If we want to meet and see Jesus, we can't do it on the run. We need to slow down and start taking the time to see Jesus all around us every day. If we want to stay on the road of faith, occasionally we have to hit the brakes, pull over to a rest area, and stop.
While the church earnestly warns Christians to watch out for evil and temptation, we mistakenly believe temptations come in large, easily seen and understood moments. We have been taught to reject belief in a devil because we have dressed him up in a red suit with horns and a tail. What we fail to understand is that he is much more subtle than that. The devil is sitting in the congregation encouraging everyone to keep busy doing "good things” instead of God things. He doesn’t have to get us to miss that mark by a mile, but only by a little bit. We still miss the mark.
I still believe the key to the Christian life and the key to spiritual growth boil down to just learning to hang out with Jesus.
Copyright © 2014, William T. McConnell, All Rights Reserved