What’s Pastor Kevin Watching: Tom Hanks on SNL

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The last few months I have heard over and over again the lament about how difficult it is in the current cultural climate to get along with people who disagree with you.  The minute you express an opinion you are labeled as an us or a them and the conversation is over.  That drives me nuts.  I just want to be friends and talk about movies and football and occasionally Jesus.

Even those things are controversial any more.  We seem to live in an age when the lines that divide us are being drawn in ever bolder ways and nobody seems to have a way to begin erasing some of them.  This makes me sad and crazy worried for our future.

Then came Tom Hanks to Saturday Night Live this weekend.  I never watch SNL or take it very seriously.  It isn’t just because of the crass nature of the show but lately the skits have just been sloppy with dumb punchlines and lousy writing.  But SNL is still a fairly solid institution that digs deep once in awhile to deliver something true and beautiful.  They did so during 2008’s presidential election.  They delivered again in 2012 when a children’s choir began their Christmas episode by singing “Silent Night” in honor of the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary.  Last night they did so again, albeit with a great assist for Tom Hanks.

The opening debate spoof was humorous enough but after the beginning credits Tom Hanks donned an overcoat and sat down to give Americans some great “Dad” advice for moving forward.  “Your complexion is getting darker but don’t let it bother you.”  “Do you really need so many guns?”  and the like.

But the epic brilliance came when Tom Hanks crashed a “Black Jeopardy” skit as a back woods cowboy sporting a patriotic T-shirt and a Trump hat.  The host, played brilliantly by Keenan Thompson asked three contestants a variety of questions that poked fun at inner city black culture.  Surprisingly, Hanks’ Trump supporter answered every question perfectly but he was speaking about his own rural culture.  Thompson’s host and the two other contestants were shocked as they began to bond with him.  At one point Thompson and Hanks exchanged an extremely awkward hand shake.  The moral was that despite the idiotic labels and stereotypes, inner city blacks have much in common with rural whites.

For thee years I lived and ministered in Kansas City’s inner city and then moved and spent 3 years in rural Oregon.  So I could relate to the skit in profound ways.  The cultures of rural Oregon and inner Kansas City were almost identical, even if the skin colors were different.  I felt completely at home in both places and it wasn’t until I moved to suburban Salt Lake City that I now feel completely out of place.

More than that, I loved the awkwardness of the Keenan Thompson’s host.  He acted the character with a complete unease and visible cautiousness as he tried to tip toe around the white guy.  There was this uncertainty about just how this Trump supporter was going to mix with the others.  When the white guy answered the questions perfectly, Keenan was noticeably shocked and thrilled each time.

Something in Thompson’s performance resonated with me on a deep level.  As a pastor, I cannot find a better image for my vocation in this awkward, divisive world.  Every Sunday morning I am the awkward and cautious host.  I get up to face a group of people from drastically different backgrounds.  I have liberals and conservatives and hispanics and whites and wealthy and homeless in my congregation and when they all get together I am visibly terrified about how this is all going to go.  Like Thompson’s host, I tiptoe around things while trying to urge them into deeper conversation.

Most of the time it goes extremely well.  Like Thompson’s host I find myself smiling and nodding and saying, “yeah, yeah, that’s right man!  Yeah, good job!  I’m proud of you!” and then attempting the awkward handshake.

What I loved the most about Thompson’s performance was though he was terrified he kept the game going.  There was a quiet courageousness in his character that I loved.  He kept stepping up to the plate and ended the skit with an excellent punch line, “After commercial break we are going to play the national anthem and just see what happens!”

That is me every Sunday morning.  After our opening song I stand up and face that room of highly diverse people and say, “Good morning.  Let’s sing some songs and pray a bit and talk about the Bible and see what happens!”  And then I pray hell doesn’t open up and swallow us whole.

It hasn’t happened yet as we continue to dig deeper into God and into each other and realize that we have much in common and our dumb labels are just that, DUMB.

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The Sermon I Should Have Preacher: The Gospels

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This is an ongoing blog series where upon completing a sermon series, I mention a few things I myself learned that may or may not have made it into the final draft of the series.

Last year when I was planning my sermon series for the 2016 calendar year, I decided to spend the Fall talking about practical holiness.  As I began putting together those sermons, I hit a wall very early on.  The problem was that I could not talk about practical holiness without first helping my congregation develop a fuller understanding of the mystery that is the gospel.  Therefore, a 12 week sermon series on holiness as described in Romans 12-16 became a six week series on “What is the Gospel?” followed by another six weeks in Romans 12-16.

I finished my first six weeks in the gospel last Sunday.  I very roughly structured the series on the five (or six) major atonement theories.  I tried to pick one passage per theory that I thought defended that particular theory well.  So very roughly the six sermons went like this:

2 Cor. 5: The Gospel and Ministry of Reconciliation

Romans 1: The Satisfaction Theory

Ephesians 2: Ransom Theory

Colossians 2: “Christus Victor” And the overthrow of the Rulers and Authorities of our World. (This is the only one online currently and you can listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJbo9DCG4WY)

Romans 8: Recapitulation Theory

1 John 4: Moral Influence Theory

With those in mind, after spending the last couple months doing some deeper thinking about the core of our Christian faith and revisiting both the the events of Jesus’s life and how the epistles interpret them, here are some things I learned.  These are not things I knew all ready but things I genuinely realized.

  1. Yes the Wesleyan/Holiness tradition has major qualms about the “wrath of God” and maybe rightly so.  But unfortunately for us God’s wrath is all over the epistles.  Even Jesus in the gospels does his fair share talking about it.  With that said, I still don’t believe God was so angry that God needed to watch a Quentin Tarantino (or even, *cough* a “Mel Gibson”) movie to suddenly be okay with it all.  But God is angry at the sinfulness of the world and Jesus came as a solution to it.  There is no way to be biblical and not to address the wrath of God.
  2. The epistles don’t concentrate on the cross nearly as much as we do today.  In fact, in most of the epistle passages listed above almost all the events of Jesus’ life are mentioned or alluded to in some way.  The incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, Pentecost and Jesus’ second coming all appear together almost all of the time.  In the epistles the gospel is not about the cross but about the entire “Christ event.”  If we want to talk about salvation in a biblical way we must talk and give equal emphasis to all of them.
  3. With that said, I was surprised at how often Pentecost and the Holy Spirit itself comes up in talking about the gospel.  The good news according to the epistles is not just about forgiveness on the cross but about the release of the Holy Spirit into the world to equip and enable us to live holy lives.
  4. The ransom theory is extremely difficult to defend in any biblical way.  Going in I knew that the Old Testament provided very little evidence that Satan somehow controlled the entire cosmos.  But I was sure the New Testament at the very least alluded to it.  I was wrong.  The New Testament does not in any way teach it.  Ephesians 2 comes the closest but it doesn’t even mention Satan by name.  It talks about the “ruler of the prince of the air” which was actually a title for Caesar.

So those are some thoughts about the gospel.  They are things I genuinely learned in the last couple months.  I hope to do this from here on out with all my sermon series.  I also hope to back date one to the minor prophets which I spent the summer preaching through.

In completely unrelated news this here blog post is apparently my 200th!!!  Here is a picture of an anniversary cake to celebrate.

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The Answer to Clergy Burnout (Hint: It is not babying your pastor)

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I first felt the call to ministry when I was 13 years old.  I took a giant leap of faith and told my mom what had been going on in my heart.  She stared blankly at me and then stuttered, “Don’t tell your dad.”

I have no idea why she said that because she told my dad within the week. My dad was so concerned about it, he decided we needed to have a heart to heart conversation about this crazy idea.  It was almost like I had announced I was getting into crystal meth.

It wasn’t that my parents were atheists.  It wasn’t that they were even anti-religion or anti-church.  They were and up to that point always had been good church people.  It was precisely because they were good church people that they knew what “good church people” do to good church pastors.  They eat them for dinner.

Regardless, or maybe because of my parents’ concerns, I went ahead and pursued formal ministerial education to figure out this calling thing.  In my very first class my wonderful professors were as equally honest as my father.  They too were good church people who knew what happened to good church pastors.  One professor very honestly put it, “If you can picture yourself doing anything but full time ministry, you are not called to ministry.”

The problem at that point was that I couldn’t picture myself doing anything else.  This calling was in my heart and blood and bones and no discouraging words from those who had lived decades in the trenches could simmer my passion.  I think that was probably the point.

After that I endured 8 years of formal education for this job

First person to save and sanctify the Sasquatch gets a free swimming pool in their mansion of glory!

and clergy burnout came up constantly.  At times it felt like a group of crazy people who had seen the Sasquatch were trying to convince me that this was real.  “Trust us guys, Burnout is out there!  I saw it eat my grandma!  I heard it destroyed my neighbor’s fence!  My best friend claimed that he saw Burnout and it bellowed at him with 9 inch teeth!”

But along with those apocalyptic warnings came good advice.  Pray more.  Sleep more.  Have good mentors.  Take your day off.  Take your vacation.  Exercise.

And of course academia is not the only village to see the Burnout.  Everybody else has seen it too.  Most major Christian magazines and blogs run “Clergy Burnout” articles constantly.  Some of are written for the clergy, some for the laity and they all recycle the same old advice.  Be easy on your poor pastor.  Support your poor pastor.  Give them more stuff.  Let their children get away with more stuff.  And BY NO MEANS call them on their day off.

All that is good and helpful.  We are just human, but some of those articles tow the very fine line of treating pastors like we are the poor handicapped kid in the second grade who needs “special treatment.”  And I don’t think that is the case for the handicapped kid or for your pastor.  The handicapped kid doesn’t need “special treatment” or attention.  They need what you need, to feel like they are a valuable part of the group and a healthy, loving community.  Your pastor needs that too.

Click to buy.

On that note, a couple months ago I read a now old book called “Failure of Nerve” by Edwin Friedman.  I meant to write a review here but never got around to it.  Friedman wrote the book on his death bed and it was a compilation of several years worth of research and lectures.  It was his magnum opus and unfortunately he died before finishing it.

Friedman worked among national leaders in Washington D.C. for 40 years.  He was a Jewish Rabbi and marriage counselor, as well as an adviser to several Presidents, congressmen and women and other politicians.

He eventually came to disbelieve several myths about how leadership works and he spent his life trying to dispel them.  “Failure of Nerve” was his last great shot and it worked to some extent because 20 years after he died, here I am revisiting all my assumptions about leadership because of him.

One of those “myths” that he vehemently expels is that stress comes from working too hard.  After working with several teams of people, particularly in politics, who worked 16 hour days for months at a time and never burned out, he knew that not to be the case.  Instead he found that stress comes from bad relationships.  He argued that if you are part of a good team and doing work you believe in, 16 hour days are your joy, not your angst.  But if you are working 5 hours a day with a dysfunctional team, the Burnout monster just might rear its ugly head.

So follow with me here and consider that clergy burnout might have nothing to do with long hours and little pay.  It might have nothing to do with difficult and hard work.  That should be our joy.  Instead, if Friedman is correct, it might have everything to do with dysfunctional teams.

If I am right about this it means that the best way to support your pastor has nothing to do with supporting your pastor.  It has everything to do with supporting the person sitting in the pew next to you.  It has everything to do with creating a climate in your church of love and respect, a respect that doesn’t start or stop with your pastor but finds it end goal in the least of the church members among you.

It seems like Jesus also had something to say about that:

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'” Matthew 25:40 NIV

And probably for your pastor too.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Will Willimon’s “How Odd of God”

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Every Sunday morning around 11:30am I do this really odd thing.  I get up in front a group of 40 of my closest friends.  I open up a loose translation of a book whose latest content is 1200 years old and whose oldest content is 5000 years old.  I read a passage and talk about it for about 25 minutes.  My goal is to show the group how that passage informs our understanding of who God is and what God requires of us.

This speech takes a hard week to put together.  By “hard” I mean exhausting.  By “week” I mean hours of historical and theological study, drafting and redrafting, collecting pictures for visual aids, arguing with myself over minute points, and practicing out loud to an empty sanctuary.  Worse than the hours of work, are the emotional highs and lows.  Even worse than those is the very uncomfortable feeling of arrogance I get when I stand up to speak.  The worst of all is the new exhaustion I feel when it all ends right around noon, an exhaustion compounded by the fact I have to do it all over again in the next 7 very short days.

I have been doing this almost every Sunday for about 5 years now and it has not felt any less weird the more I do it.  If anything it feels more odd now than it did 5 years ago.  This may be because lately I have met some non church types, those wonderful saints of the world who have never darkened the doorway of a house of God.  I try to explain to them the process of preparing and delivering a sermon and that there is a group of people willing to pay me money to do this.  Their bewildered expressions confirm one thing, “My vocation is the most curious of all.”

It isn’t the 25 minute monologue that makes it weird.  There are dozens of other professions who do something similar, actors, comedians, newscasters, politicians etcetera.  No, the weirdness of preaching is threefold.

First, there is the curious loyalty to a centuries old book, a loyalty grounded in the belief that this book holds the keys to an eternal and abundant life.

Second, there is the bold, almost audacious claim that the God who rules over all eternity and created all things chose me to give this 25 minute speech to these 40 people every week.

Third, there is the belief, legitimately grounded in the data of my life, that I am the worst person ever chosen for this task.

This awkward 25 minute event repeated once weekly provides the context for Will Willimon’s new book, “How Odd of God: Chosen for the Curious Vocation of Preaching.”  He begins the work by noting his delight at reading the papers of undergrads in their first ministry class.  He tasked the naive undergrads to write about why they believe the God of all Creation would choose them to preach.  He now laments he should have asked them to write what kind of God would choose them to preach.  I agree the latter is the more interesting paper.  Luckily, “How Odd of God” is just such a paper.

Click to buy!

Arguing from Barth’s works, Willimon describes this God as the God of “yes” who out of love chooses us feeble, sinful humans to join him in the work.  Willimon relies heavily on Barth’s doctrine of election to claim that God elects us not just for salvation but for mission (the hallmark tenet of the missional movement).  According to Willimon, nothing can proclaim the doctrine of election louder than an inadequate preacher standing up behind a lectern every Sunday and claiming, “God chose me despite all my failings to give you this message today.”

If there is anything to critique in Willimon’s excellent text, it is that Willimon rambles more than usual.  In fact, the book is not too different from the late works of other saints who, having aged to a special level of holiness, can now afford to write more poetry than prose.  This isn’t the text of a young man:  articulate, perfectly structured, and easy to skim.  This is half journal, half textbook which means there isn’t always an obvious correlation between one paragraph and the next.  Do not get me wrong, I absolutely do not fault Willimon for this.  I personally love that as the saints age, the mystery of God awakens a poetry in them not seen in the younger selves.  I have read very similar books by aging theologians and though I don’t follow their arguments, their conclusions are still so poignant they bring tears to my eyes.

But to be fair, making me cry this week was not hard.  I stepped out of the pulpit last Sunday to a nightmare of conflict that consumed my week and threatened to make my entire vocation not only curious but frivolous.  I spent the week stuck in the vortex that is my chaotic thoughts, trying to iron out whether or not I could/should even step into another pulpit again and wondering if God knew what God was doing in calling me to proclaim the truths of our faith in clever little 25 minute speeches every Sunday.  Of course I am not worthy of the calling, at least by the current American understanding of “worthiness” (which isn’t biblical by the way).  However, Willimon’s thesis means that just by standing in a pulpit and claiming “God chose me” reveals a wildly loving God.  After all, if he chose a wretch like me, he probably chose you as well.

How odd of God indeed!

2015: The Year I Sold Out to Suburbia

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TIME’s last magazine of the year was released to my tablet this morning.  I have been an avid TIME reader for about 7 years now and always look forward to the year end issue.  It is a fun issue including the “Person of the Year,” best pictures of the year, best moments of the year, best 15 minute celebrities and the like.

The TIME year end issue always gets me thinking about the year I had and what were my best moments.  In fact, for years now I have done this ridiculously cheesy thing where I name every year.  The titles have ranged from the sappy, “2008: The Year All My Dreams Came True” to the tamer, “2013: The Year That Just Was.”

After tapping through TIME and drinking my coffee, I got my two kids dressed, fed my dog, stepped out of my split level suburban house, climbed into my mid level SUV and suddenly realized, “2015 is the year I sold out to the suburbs!”

That realization might not have been difficult for some but for me it is a difficult reality.  There is this version of myself from late college and early seminary who loathed everything about suburbia.  You can chalk that up to a typical Millenial’s rebellion against his childhood but I felt pretty secure in my belief that Satan controlled the suburbs while God dwelt in the small towns and inner cities.

After all, I worked in an inner city homeless shelter with wonderful, but homeless, saints.  The suburbs of that city had police officers who would see wandering homeless people, pick them up in their squad cars, drive them into the city and tell them, “Don’t ever come back.  This is the place for you.”  I wish I was making that up but I am not.  I believe there was a some racism there as most of the “homeless” they found were hispanic or black.

Beyond that, suburbs are/were the heart of selfish consumerism, that great evil which is the modern day equivalent of what Jesus called, “the pursuit of wealth.”  They waste the most resources, hoarde the most stuff and destroy the most families.  They do all of this while being quite smug.

At least that is what I thought.

Yet here I am in 2015, only 3 and a half years removed from seminary and 6 and a half from college, living in a suburban split level with 2 kids, a dog and an SUV.

It all started before 2015 with a reluctant job interview initiated by me because of a sense of calling.  Soon after I was getting a new Costco membership, stocking up on Starbucks gift cards, shopping in malls, eating at Olive Garden and watching movies once a month at the local megaplex.

I can offer you all kinds of excuses and justifications for this sudden turnabout.  I could mention that I am married to a wonderful woman who never shared my negative feelings about the suburbs and now is quite happy here, happier than she has been in the entirety of our marriage.  And as the old but funny adage goes, “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!”

I could also mention a report that I can’t name but I know exists that suggests poverty is now moving to the suburbs.  I seem to remember it said that based off of current trends, in 10-20 years the suburbs will have decayed to shanty towns while the inner cities rejuvenate.  I read that report 10 years ago, which means we are that much closer to it.  I could put up pictures of buildings on my suburb that illustrate this trend.  I can even tell you the names of people I know who live in the suburbs and are making far below the poverty line, despite working 40 hours a week in great jobs that do incredible good for society.

More than that I could also argue that I am here to “sanctify the arrogant suburbanites,” that if suburbs are where the sinners live, than that is where the gospel should take root.  I could point to the fact that even though John Wesley and Phineas Bresee, the grandfather and father of my tradition, spent much time among the poor, their real contribution to the church was that they lived among the wealthy and encouraged the wealthy to also embrace the poor.  See, that is what I am doing!  Except that I am not and that attitude is as arrogant and self righteous as the worst of the suburbanites.

Putting that aside I could even satisfy a bit of my guilt by letting you all know that my family took a drastic cut in pay to move here and the church I took over was running less people on a Sunday than the church I left.  However, since moving here my wife has found a great job that she enjoys and we are making slightly more money than we were before.

So maybe I could just tell you the truth.  One day in mid September 2014 (which is “The year I broke my own heart”) I was walking down the street in a wonderful and impoverished small town whose residents were rough around the edges but solid diamonds underneath.  On that street in that town I heard God say, “Time to go” and I was certain it was God so I made plans to leave.

Then in October I was sitting a dinner table with a new friend who has since become a great ministry partner.  In that conversation he shared with me about Utah and about the spiritual needs and I heard the voice of my Lord tell me to come here.

As it turns out, I actually might have a little bit in common with that infamous Old Testament prophet Jonah.  The inner city and small towns are my Tarshish.  The suburbs are my Nineveh.

And after God said, “Hey Kevin, go to Nineveh,” there was no use going anywhere else but Nineveh.  It was far better to go willingly than to buy a ticket aboard a whale’s digestive tract.

So here I sit, typing this out on my brand new laptop, in my split level suburban house, after putting the kids and the dog down for a nap, ready to go to the big city for a date night with my wife, perfectly pleased to let all of you know that 2015 is “The Year I Sold Out to Suburbia.”

 

Assertive, Aggressive and Passive Agressive

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Right before I got married we met a few times with one of my pastors to go through the motions of premarital counseling.  My pastor was in an unenviable position because I had all ready gone through both premarital and marital counseling courses and passed them with flying colors.  More than that, I had recently taken them, which of course means I was an expert on the subject!

I also believe that I had interrupted a very busy time in his life or maybe he just trusted our all ready strong network of mentors.  Either way we only met a few times and didn’t talk about much.

However, there is one thing that stands out 8 years later.  During one session he explained to my wife and I that there is a marked difference between being assertive and being aggressive.  He explained that being assertive is merely explaining your wants and needs clearly, firmly and politely.  Being aggressive is more sinister.  It is attacking the other for perceived failures or sleights.

I have now been in ministry much longer than I have been married and have found that this little lesson doesn’t just apply to marriage but to all human relationships, particularly those in the local church.  Our off line culture right now seems to be inundated with a sort of passive aggressiveness that masks itself as “being polite.”  In turn our online culture (see Facebook and Twitter) seems to be inundated with a sort of over aggressiveness that masks itself as “assertiveness.”  Neither attitude is very Christlike.

So I have compiled some fun examples illustrating the difference between being assertive, being aggressive and being passive aggressive.  Some of these are meant to be humorous.  All of them are meant to be illustrative.  None of them are taken from any of my ministry contexts.

Passive: Pastor, your sermon was fine.  It was just.  .  .great.

Aggressive: That sermon sucked just like all your sermons!  When are you going to say something valuable?!

Assertive: You know I really struggled Sunday to figure out what you were trying to say.

Passive: Oh, your a Mets fan.  .  .well, okay, that’s.  .  .interesting.

Aggressive: Why would anyone cheer for the Mets?  Don’t you know that whole franchise belongs to the dark Lord?!  Repent immediately or perish!

Assertive: I assert that anybody who cheers for the New York Mets should repent immediately or perish. (:P)

Passive: Well if you all think we should paint the fellowship hall green then, whatever, do what you want.

Aggressive: Green is a lousy color.  Why would you ever do that!?  We cannot do that.  Nobody will come to our church if our fellowship hall is green!

Assertive: You know the carpet in that room is all ready red and we don’t have the money to replace it quite yet.  The green might make the whole room look like 1970’s Christmas and I am not sure that is the aesthetic we are going for.  Why don’t we consider a more neutral color or not paint until we saved up to do the carpet too?

Passive: Live your life however you want but I think all sinners are going to hell.

Aggressive: You are violating all the laws of God’s sacred scriptures and insulting God and are going to burn in hell if you don’t repent.

Assertive: You say you try to follow Jesus’ teachings and I believe that but how do you reconcile Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” with the things you are saying about and doing to Lisa?

Passive: Well if you want to turn our church into a coffee shop instead of a church go ahead!  I don’t care.

Aggressive: Coffee is black.  Black is the devil’s color.  Coffee is the devil.  You are the devil.  You are turning our church into the devil’s house.

Assertive: This may seem like an easy decision but it is going to cost some money and change the atmosphere and climate of our church.  I’m not sure we want our worship atmosphere to resemble the atmosphere of a coffee house.

I hope at least some of those helped.  I know that being politely assertive is a hard mark to hit but I believe we, including myself, can all do better!

Have a great Thursday!

My First Foray Into Performing the Scriptures: The Sermon on the Mount

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There is a neat trend hitting modern day Christianity where clever interpreters and actors memorize and perform a large portion of Scripture in an engaging way.  You can watch some of these live performances on Youtube.  When done well, they are quite engaging.

A few weeks ago I decided to give this a try with the Sermon on the Mount.  I memorized it and performed a dramatic reenactment of it for my congregation, complete with Powerpoint slides and props for the kids.

I would love to take a week and write a whole book of posts about this experience but I am way too busy and all ready a day behind because yesterday I was in bed with the stomach flu.

However, here are a few things I learned/gained from memorizing and performing the Sermon on the Mount.

First, I learned way more memorizing it than I did studying it.  Last year I spent a few months preaching through the Sermon on the Mount.  I read a few books, looked up a lot of Greek words, realized some Old Testament connections and poured over the structure.  All that was really useful.  However, I learned more memorizing it out loud.  I saw things I would never read in a book.  These were things like subtle transitions, rhetorical devices, tonal changes and sarcasm.

Second, you make 1,000 more interpretive decisions reciting a text than you do preaching it.  When I preach I try to focus on explaining just one or two interpretative moves from the text.  However, when I spent 15 minutes reciting the Sermon on the Mount, I found I made and conveyed over 1,000 interpretive moves.  When does Jesus raise his voice and lower it?  When is Jesus standing or sitting?  What props did Jesus have handy?  Was there a snake in the distance he pointed to?  Did he have a loaf of bread in hand?  When did Jesus’ voice convey sarcasm?  When did it convey compassion?  When was Jesus being ironic?  When was he being solemn?  Then there is the wonderful ending to the sermon when Jesus says the house fell with a crash!  Do you yell “crash!” or whisper it?  What do you do after you say, “crash?”  Do you get up and leave?  Do you issue a call to follow Jesus?  Do you add an “amen” or a “so be it?”  This brings me to.  .  .

Third, I had to work my tail off not to add words.  I do believe the Sermon on the Mount has an internal structure that made sense to 1st century Jews.  I think that structure is something like:

Describing the World as God Has Made It (5:1-5:20)

Commandments for Living Well in God’s World (5:21-7:6)

Various Metaphors Imploring You To Live Well (7:7-8:1)

With that in mind, there are still some really awkward transitions.  I had no idea what to do with the transition from “do not worry” to “do not judge” or from “salt and light” to “I have not come to abolish the law.”  So I found myself adding “and’s” and “but’s” and “oh’s” to help the audience out a bit.  I felt really uncomfortable doing that, like I was adding to “God’s Infallible Word!”  Still, I didn’t know how not to do it.  After all, that is what I would do in any other sermon or even in blog posts.

Fourth, when Jesus says, “if your right hand is causing you to sin, chop it off” he is definitely talking about masturbation.  I read that in a book over a year ago and didn’t believe it.  But after memorizing it in the context of looking lustfully after a woman and after learning a little bit more about those addicted to pornography.  .  .yeah that is exactly what Jesus was talking about.  This brings me to,

Fifth, parts of this sermon are quite mean.  Everybody loves the poetry of the “do not worry” passage but when read out loud it comes off rather insulting.  “Don’t worry about food and clothes!  The pagans run after those things!”  “Who of you by worrying can add one single hour to your life?!”  In another part, Jesus says that anybody who makes promises is evil, taunting them with, “you can’t make one hair on your head white or black!”  Then there are the obvious ones like, “Be perfect!” or “Your righteousness must surpass the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law!” or “Any man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery!”  It is hard to say this stuff out loud and not sound like a jerk, especially when your congregation is full of guilty addicts, remarried divorcees and gray haired worriers!  Still I should add that my personal favorite is, “if you then, though are evil, know how to give good gifts.  .  .”  Wait, did he just call his entire audience evil?  Yes, yes Jesus did.

Sixth, there are softer parts too.  The aside about settling matters quickly before your adversary takes you to court is just Jesus giving us some good, loving advice.  Out loud, it almost sounds fatherly.  The question, “are you not much more valuable than sparrows?” is full of compassion.  The beatitudes are beautiful.  There are lovely assurances of God’s provision in statements like, “your father knows what you need before you ask” and “ask and you will receive.  Seek and you will find.”

It turns out these are not just descriptions of God but invitations to express our holiness in the way that God does.  The unseen God insists our “acts of righteousness” remain unseen.  The God who forgives sins insists we forgive sinners.  The God who shows mercy insists we be merciful and yes, the God who is perfect insists we be perfect as well.

In closing, this was a very worthwhile practice for me.  My congregation also seemed enjoy it, and not just because I offered a kid a loaf of bread, only to actually throw a rock at him.

Therefore I will definitely do it again, but maybe next time with one of the minor prophets.  That will fill up a sanctuary, only to empty it out just as quickly!

Blessings on your weeks!  May they be full of God’s provision and protection.