Resolving the Problem with Preaching
The Rev. Canon Frank Logue preached this sermon at
St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Douglas, Georgia on June 16, 2013
Resolving the Problem with Preaching
1 Kings 21:1-21a and Luke 7:36-8:3
There is a problem common in preaching. I want to share that problem and then share a way to resolve it so that in the future you can get more out of every sermon you hear—good sermons and bad sermons.
Notice what I just did. I set up a problem and then offered to resolve that problem in the sermon. This is a very common shape for a preacher to use in breaking open the Word of God for a congregation on Sunday morning. This problem/resolution sermon is not the only style we preachers use, but it is a common one. This morning preachers will be setting up and resolving problems in five minute homilies and in hour long sermons.
Problem/resolution sermons will be preached in every denomination and in a variety of ways. I enjoy preaching that sort of sermon myself, but there is a hidden danger in always setting up and resolving problems with the scripture passage for the day. Without meaning to do so, we can teach that this is how we are to use the Bible: First run into a problem, then in step two run to the Bible for the answer to a given problem. This is a satisfying way to preach in one way, but in years of listening to this style of sermon, the pattern gets fixed without out considering the pattern we learn. For that pattern suggests that when we run into a problem, we just need to dash to the Bible to find the resolution. But that’s not the way the Bible was designed to work.
I know the sixty-six books in the collection we know as the Holy Bible to be the Word of God and to contain all things necessary for salvation. Beyond this, I know that it is in the text of the Bible that we learn who God is and how God acts. This understanding of God comes from the whole text and shines most clearly through the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry for he is the Word made flesh. And so while I know that God inspired the authors of texts, I have found as Christians through the ages have discovered, that the Holy Spirit also inspires us as we read and so still speaks to us through the text. The Bible is continually God-breathed as God inspires out reading of His Word.
Scripture speaks to us in many ways, but in the ways it speaks the poorest is to start with a problem and then run to the Bible for an answer. There is no index in the back to give tips for problems with raising a teenager or deciding about end of life care for a parent. There is no text to read when facing money problems. The Bible functions best when used very differently. What is most helpful is to actually, well, read it.
This is not too surprising. After all, people are always ready to comment on books they haven’t read. For example, when my daughter was 12 years old…this was about 10 years ago…and Harry Potter books were controversial. There was at that time a debate about whether Christians could or should permit their children to read them. There were people who were quite fine with the Lord of the Rings Trilogy who nonetheless opposed the magic and wizardry in Harry Potter.
My good friend, the Rev. Kit Carlson, worked this out in the best way possible. She knew scripture well and then she read through the Harry Potter series up to that point. Within the text of the first Harry Potter book she found the sacrificial love Harry’s parents showed for their son in giving their lives for him. In the process, Harry was marked with a lightning bolt scar on his forehead. Kit compared this to the way a newly baptized Christian has long been marked with the sign of the cross in oil on his or her forehead. Knowing scripture, Christian tradition and the text of the novel, she preached a wonderful sermon she called Harry Potter and the Baptismal Font. She preached powerfully that any time we witness self sacrificial love that is more concerned with the beloved than for ourselves, we are seeing a reflection of God’s love for us.
You can only preach that sermon if you have read the texts, the texts of both scripture and Harry Potter. The same principle applied to the novel The Golden Compass. There was a stir when the movie came out that the novel was an atheist text. Certainly, the author is an atheist, but the books are truly concerned with the institutional church. As one who works for the institution of the church, I see his concerns as founded and I had no problem with the well written books. I am proud that my daughter named her recently adopted dog Lyra for the main character in the books. She is a strong woman and she named her strong young dog for the main character in the Golden Compass. I can feel this pride because I bothered to read the entire series and appreciate it for what is written rather than what others told me is in the books.
In that same way, when we turn to the text of the Bible we can have a lot of opinions about it, but they will only be well founded when we actually read and reflect on the text. Here is what I suggest you do: Read the Bible. Read some of it each and every day. One can read through the Bible every year in less than 20 minutes each day.
The pattern I am using right now is to read each morning with my wife. We read three chapters from the Old Testament, a chapter or large portion from the Psalms and a chapter from the New Testament. In this way, we will read through the Bible each year. Another great pattern is to pick up a copy of Forward Day by Day which was on the table in the hall as you entered the church. This uses a pattern found in the Book of Common Prayer which will have you reading through the Bible every two years. I have used both patterns and each works very well.
As Episcopalians, we have always believed and taught that one should not wait for Sundays but have daily devotions that include a pattern of reading our way through scripture. When we do this, when we read through the Bible, something very important happens, we meet God in the text.
Our Old Testament reading this morning was most intriguing. Quite literally. There was deceit, murder, theft and a hint of coming judgment for Jezebel. We didn’t read all of the story and so we reached a point where it was difficult when we hear the reader say “The Word of the Lord” we can find it hard to to proclaim “Thanks be to God” as the reading ends. Perhaps if we read just a little more.
Yet when we read the Bible through in course, we discover that even odd stories like this one speak to us. In these texts, we find God’s justice working itself out in a very unjust world. We actually need these stories of murder, theft and intrigue as we live in a fallen world, a world that is far from perfect. The Bible, if nothing else, is a very realistic text. Even the saints, the heroes of the Bible routinely get it wrong, they make mistakes, sometimes tragic mistakes.
My favorite modern theologian…actually his most recent work isn’t that good and so I have some trouble mentioning him…but Homer Simpson from the TV show The Simpson’s is given a Bible on an episode and he flips through the pages and says, what kind of book is that, everybody in it is a sinner…oh, except that one guy. That is a problem…everybody in the Bible is a sinner, except that one guy. But even Homer shows that the whole text matters. In another episode when he thinks he is dying because he ate badly prepared puffer fish, his last act is to listen through the whole Bible as a book on tape read by Larry King. This is when Homer Simpson really got it right as he understood that he needed to marinate himself in the words of the Bible. When we marinate ourselves in this way, reading through the Bible again and again we can come to know how it works, what happens next and so who God is and how God acts. You come to know in your bones how God responds to human failings and needs.
When you read our Gospel passage for today, I need you to understand how scandalous the behavior captured in this story really felt to its first hearers. Jesus peaks harshly to his host for dinner and this just isn’t done, but even Jesus’ response pales compared to what his words follow. A woman came into the courtyard where the Pharisee Simon is hosting a dinner. His guests include the Rabbi Jesus and his disciples and the woman finds Jesus and begins to wash his feet with her tears and wipe them with her hair. Please understand that no Rabbi worth his salt would permit a woman not his wife to touch him and certainly would never permit some strange woman to cry on his feet. This was unthinkable. To make matters much, much worse, we learn that this woman was a notorious sinner.
As an ancient near eastern group of hearers would immediately understand the absolute scandal and hearing this story the first time one would guess what would happen next and it would not go well for the woman, that much we know for sure. So then we understand why the host is so horrified, how could this happen at his party. If Jesus were the sort of Rabbi or prophet he though he was inviting, Jesus would know what sort of woman she was and would put her back in her place.
But if you have been reading the Bible through in course, when you get to this passage you predict a very different outcome. The different outcome is not because Jesus is a softy. Jesus has very harsh words of criticism. Yet we know Jesus reserves judgment not for the sinner seeking forgiveness, but for the holier than thou set. Awkward for me, Jesus’ words of judgment are for those who wear long robes [point to the robe I am wearing] and those who sit in places of honor in the synagogue [point to the ornate presider’s chair reserved for my use in worship]. Jesus’ judgment is never, ever honed in on the person every one else looks down on who is simply seeking God’s mercy.
When you read through the whole Bible and you come to this story, nobody can fool you. You know what Jesus will do. You have met him through the Old Testament and most fully In the Gospels. What you know as you read this passage is that Jesus is about to show a backbone as he will when there is someone powerless for whom no one dares speak up.
There have been people in my life who just seem to whether storms more easily than others and so often they are the people who have daily devotions including reading through the Bible. When someone who is marinated in the text of the Bible hits a problem in life, it is not that they have some text that comes to mind that resolves everything. It’s more like they just know, and know deep down inside that God is just and trustworthy and whatever happens, God has got it covered.
So what we find is that the Bible is not the place to run when you encounter problems. Instead we see that the Bible is where we meet the living God. When you come to know God through reading through the text, all of it, then you don’t have an image of God handed to you by someone else, you have the image of God found in God’s Word and in the Word made flesh, Jesus. Then you base your relationship with God not on someone else’s understanding, but on how God has inspired your own reading of scripture. Then no one can convince you that God is different from the God you have met in the Bible.
When some one starts to present God as a big meanie hell bent on judgment and punishment, you will know that that is not the God you met in the Bible. Yes, there is judgment, but there is mercy. Yes, there is law, but there is grace. Yes, we sin, but God holds out repentance, amendment of life and forgiveness. And more than anything else you will find the through line that weaves its way through the Bible is love. No matter what we do, God holds out grace and mercy, forgiveness and love.
I don’t uphold this idea of ready scripture because it is easy or because it bears fruit every day. In fact, reading the Bible each day takes dedication and discipline. You will read and find that it is just words on a page or read and find that ten minutes later you have difficulty recalling what you read. But you will also encounter days in which it seems like the passage was written and passed through the ages for no other reason than for you to read it right then on that day. Then another time something that made no sense at all when you read it will come back at the right time and suddenly fit into place. But more importantly, in all those days you will meet this living God in God’s word.
If you follow through on this discipline and you encounter God’s word every day then every single sermon you hear, good or not so good will have fertile soil in your heart in which to plant new seeds. Even bad sermons will be dealing with these texts and give you pause to think. But beyond resolving your issue with sermons, this pattern of reading the Bible will introduce you most fully to Jesus Christ and when when problems arise in your life, you will thank God that you already know Him well.