Yet One More Reason Why Preaching (And Coaching) Are a Fools’ Errand

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A few years ago I was coaching Cross Country.  We were doing one of those workouts that required my athletes to work hard the entire workout.  To those of you not trained in distance running, most workouts require runner’s to start slow and build up.  But this wasn’t one of them.  I wanted them to work hard the whole time.  And they knew it.

Yet they were dogging it.  We were doing repeats and their times were not anywhere near what they were supposed to be.

Then the last repeat came and, because they knew it was the last one, finally ran faster than I had even wanted them too.  They crossed the line with these big grins on their faces as if they had done something special by running so fast for 1 repeat.

I was irate.  They knew they were supposed to be running that hard the whole workout and yet they lounged around and waited for the last one to suddenly run.  YET THEY WERE PROUD OF THEMSELVES?!?!?!

So I let them have it.  To this day I am not sure if I should have or not but that doesn’t change the fact I did.

I preached one of my best, most passionate sermons.  I explained to them that they had set great goals for the year.  I clarified over and over that I believed in their goals.  I emphasized that I wanted nothing more than to see them succeed.  Then I let them know that lazy workouts would destroy all of that.  There was no reason to dog the repeats until the last one other than apathy and apathy has no place in sports!  I came close to repeating the Apostle Paul in Corinthians, “And you are proud?!  Should you not be ashamed?!”

They rolled their eyes at me and then half jogged, half walked a cool down back to the school.

All but one of them.  My hardest worker, a young, energetic and goofy kid aptly named “Timmy” ran next to me the whole way back.

“I am sorry, coach!” he said over and over.  “I didn’t mean to slack off.  I really try so hard to do what you say.  I hope you are not too mad and I promise that I will do better next time.”

His sincerity was both admirable and humorous.  Timmy’s workout had been incredible that day.  He had nothing to be sorry about.  I was proud of him almost always and super proud of him that day.  He had worked hard while the upperclassmen slacked off and that is not easy to do.

Don’t miss the irony:  My lecture had gone completely ignored except by the one person who hadn’t even needed to hear it.

That is an irony I face almost every Sunday.  After a few songs, an offering and some announcements, I get up for 20 to 30 minutes and, borrowing from Moses in Deuteronomy 30:19 “Set before them life and death, blessings and curses.”  Then I urge my small congregation to,  “Now choose life!  That you may live.”

Then the people who have all ready chosen life long ago and have walked a better holiness than I yet have, tell me, “You know Pastor, you are right.  I need to do better.”

And those who I am the most unsure about, whose lives spew forth the darkness, roll their eyes and say, “Yeah, whatever,” and look back down at their phones.

And I am not complaining about this.  I have learned that these types of ironies keep me incredibly humble.  Here I am setting the table of life and death as carefully as I know how.  Then I present it to the people and no matter how hard I try, those all ready alive look at it and feel guilty.  Then the dead look at it and feel nothing, shrugging their shoulders.

But I’m just the waiter, discharging the duty ascribed to me by the master chef.  If I was the chef I might be a bit more offended but I am not.  I am just the humble servant who, to be honest, hopes more Sundays than not my sermon will be completely forgotten by Tuesday.  I would rather they forget my paltry words and live a life worthy of the gospel than the other way around.

So I have set the table.  I have scattered the word and that is what God requires and what God will reward.

I think Jesus even told a parable about this.  A farmer went out to sow his seeds.  .  .

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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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!

My Worst Sermon

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I must begin today with a disclaimer.  A few of my congregants regularly read this blog and might be surprised at my upcoming honesty.  However, I am only admitting what they all ready know.  In addition, my last blog post was about personal repentance.  I am still convicted by it, so thought I should be a bit confessional.  So here goes:

Sunday’s sermon went very poorly.

In fact, it was the worst sermon one can preach, not because it wasn’t any good but because it was almost good.  It wasn’t one of those sermons I worked really hard on only to have it fall flat.  It wasn’t an okay sermon that just couldn’t transcend the realm of greatness.  It wasn’t one of those that no matter how hard I worked I just couldn’t polish it in time.  Neither was it a great sermon ruined by delivery.  It wasn’t a somber sermon ruined by too much energy or an energetic sermon ruined by a melancholy day.  I have preached all of those sermons too many times and while they are unpleasant, I always find it easy to move on from them.

But Sunday’s sermon was a different kind of lousy.  As I preached, I suddenly realized that if I had just gone over the manuscript two or three more times (which only takes about an hour) it would have been good.  It just needed more preparation.  To make it worse, last week was a light ministry week which means I had a lot of hours to make it great.  And I wasted them on other things.

Then Sunday morning happened, which was a very pleasant morning all in all except that I had a sore throat and a nasty headache and I tried to do an experiment where I put communion in the middle of the service and we had an Advent monologue, candle and music special that made everything go wonky.  This was in addition to the million other little things that happen on a Sunday morning and right after worship my family and I piled into our car to drive four hours to be at another church’s Christmas party so that we could share our vision for the Salt Lake area.

So by the time I began my sermon, my brain was everywhere but in the sanctuary.  I found I had completely forgotten the basic movements of the sermon.  I had last practiced it Thursday, despite having time both Friday and Saturday to review it.  Halfway through the sermon, I lost complete track of what pictures were on the Powerpoint reel and what they had to do with Malachi 3.  I went back and forth several times trying to remember why I had put the pictures where I did.  On top of that, I had no energy and a hoarse voice and a very distracted mind that just couldn’t put a coherent thought together.

I did not pull the sermon off.  It started out okay.  My clever intro got a few laughs and engaged a few people.  At that point, I thought, “maybe this sermon isn’t as bad as I thought it was.”  Then I transitioned to the exegesis, a transition that involved fumbling around with the remote trying to get the right picture to pop up on the screen, and everybody was gone.  It went downhill from there.

At 11:45, after several misspeaks and stutters and Powerpoint mishaps, finding I had no energy left and that my voice sounded like a snake swallowed a frog, I finally said, “Let me tie this all together for you.”  I told them my thesis statement and closed.  I saw relief flood the faces of my congregants.

But it wasn’t over.  As a fitting nail in the coffin of the day, I played a completely random Youtube clip that was tonally inconsistent with the mood of the morning.  I stood back up to see the perplexed faces of my congregation, went ahead and prayed the benediction and let them go.

I know full well that the sore throat and lack of energy could not have been avoided.  In fact, without them I might have gotten away with the lousy sermon preparation that had happened earlier in the week, when I had all the energy and all the time in the world.  However they exposed a deeper crack that had all ready taken place.

Everything else could have been avoided.  I had plenty of time on Friday to go over to the church and run through the sermon two or three times to memorize the pictures.  I had time Monday through Thursday to really wrestle with Malachi 3 and tie it into my metaphor.  I just chose not to use it, instead wasting time on other activities that have nothing to do with the church.

In fact, in this light, I think the sore throat was God’s grace to me.  As much as it punctuated the all ready failed effort, it was a good wake up call that I am not always going to be able to pull off a miracle save after a lazy week.

But a new week lies ahead, a week full of opportunity to dig deep into the Scriptures, think creatively and critically about the world we live in and invite the congregation into that thinking with a well prepared, engaging talk that opens up God’s kingdom of possibilities.  Very little of that happened last week, but God has given me a new week to try again.

After all, the best part of the preacher’s life (and also the worst part) is that no matter how great or awful one Sunday morning goes, you always have 51 more looking at you in the next year.  You have no time to dwell, only time to move forward.

On that note, after the lousy sermon, before I fled the building in disgrace, one of my parishioners grabbed my hand and shook it.  He is a statesmen in every sense of the word and very good at raining compliments down on people who need them.  He said, “You know why I respect you, Pastor?  Even when everything comes off the rails, when your Powerpoint gets all screwy and you don’t feel good, you still see it through.  That is not easy and I appreciate it!”

“Thank you” I said.

 

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.

A Preacher’s Commitments Part 4: Keep it Short, Stupid

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When I took my first church my Grandma gave me some great advice.  She said, “The mind will only hold what the seat can withstand, so preach until noon and let those poor souls go eat!”  This is the same Grandmother who prays for an hour everyday, reads Scripture quite religiously, never misses a church function and can recite about 300 Scripture verses off the top of her head.  I love my Grandmother.

So when I started preaching, I followed her advice.  I found that on any given Sunday I did not have that much to say.  I wrote manuscripts that were about 5 pages long and when I recorded my sermons, I found they were almost exactly 22 minutes long.

I am not sure what changed or why but somehow my manuscripts began inching up slowly by slowly so one week I was 5 and a half pages leading to a 25 minute long sermon.  Then there was a 30 minute one here and there and suddenly a 40 minute one.  I don’t know if I thought I had more to say or if I just started being lazy or if I ran out of the time needed to do the difficult task of cutting superfluity out.

When I moved I decided to cut back down to five page manuscripts and 22 minute long sermons.  A lot of it had to do with shorter services.  My prior church had an hour and fifteen minute long services.  My current church’s services last only an hour.  Another reason was that I also decided to spend at least five minutes at the end having the congregation do something creative (see my last post).  But the big reason was that as my sermons increased in length, they decreased in quality.  I was rambling more and telling more stories and scattershotting more metaphors.  So the last few months I have been working hard at focusing on one point and one story or one metaphor.

It might surprise you (or it might not) to know that this one commitment has caused the most painstaking labor of any other preaching practice.  In any given week I have read one book, 2 or 3 news or magazine articles and 4 or 5 blogs.  I have had conversations with 10 people.  I have sat for hours in my office, or my car, or on my bed just thinking.  On top of that, at heart I am a communicator who gets all kind of thrills and chills while sharing data and telling stories.

So when I get up for my 22 minutes of glory every Sunday, it is very easy to stretch that into 25 minutes and then to 30 and then to 40.  Pretty soon we are getting out at 1, long after my poor Grandma’s seat has given out.

So now I time my sermons when I practice them and then I delete, delete, delete.  Often times I feel entirely stuck.  I don’t know what there is possibly left to cut out.  Then I go for a run and suddenly realize the whole 6 pages are superfluous.  Then I delete half of the manuscript and rework the rest.  I practice it again and find that now it is 25 minutes and still too long.  Then I go for another run and come back the next day, deleting more stories and data.

This week I deleted an entire church history out of my sermon.  It is stuff I badly want my congregation to know, but not something they needed to know on Trinity Sunday, except that my understanding of the Trinity is deeply influenced by the Eastern Orthodox tradition.  Last week I deleted four or five metaphors after I realized the first one did just fine.  I did the same thing a week before that.  After all, you really just need one good story or one good metaphor to sell an idea.

It is a lot of work, but like the other commitments, this one seems to have helped so far.  The sermons are not just shorter, they are more coherent and easier to follow and my grandma’s back side is always left wanting more, not less.

In closing, a university chaplain friend of mine once told me that the chaplain of another university told every guest preacher that they only had 20 minutes to preach.  This was a university that regularly hosted big names like Shane Claiborne, N.T. Wright, Tim Keller, Leonard Sweet and others.  Some would protest and say, “But I am fill in the blank!”  And the chaplain would say, “but we are the college.”  The chaplain concluded that the greats of our present time preached the best sermons they had ever preached because they were forced to actually say something and to say it succinctly and intelligently and let the students out after 20 minutes.

I only hope my sermons gain the same reward.

A Preacher’s Commitments Part 1: Starting New

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Three months ago I moved from a tiny town in Eastern Oregon to the sprawling metropolis of the Salt Lake City metro area.  This is the first week since moving that I am not looking at any huge events that I need to plan, coordinate and run.  It gives me a chance to catch my breath and wake up to the reality that I do actually live in Utah.

During the transition I have revisited my theology and practice of preaching.  Over the past couple of years I have been preaching quite regularly and discovering a lot about the weekly grind of semron prep.

This transition offered me a chance to step back from that weekly grind and take stock of what I have discovered over the last few years, while making a few new commitments to the practice.  Yesterday I preached my 12th sermon at my new church.  I would never presume to claim a medal when there is no award, but these simple but firm commitments have made me feel like a more competent preacher.

One of those commitments is to refrain from repeating sermons.  A year ago I was toying with this idea but not committed to it.  But now I am quite firm in my belief that each sermon is a one time event, given in a unique time to a unique people.  With that said, the temptation to repeat a sermon is still very present.

I know most pastors do it.  And they do it for understandable reasons.  Every pastor has that list of “glory sermons” that seemed to just pour out the Holy Spirit.  Whenever they change congregations, they cannot wait for the opportunity to pull the manuscript off, rework a few of the details and then relive the glory days.

I have those sermons too and it is with deep sadness I made my commitment to not re-preach them because I love them.  What I wouldn’t give to have those Sundays back!  But I am not sure the glory came from the manuscript, especially if I wrote it.

However, I do have another list of sermons.  These were the sermons that should have been great but fell completely flat.  Either I didn’t get the time to revisit the conceit one more time or I woke up on the wrong side of bed or I did not have the energy needed to give the passage its due or the metaphor was poorly formed or the congregation just wasn’t awake.  Either way, what should have been awesomeness was more like disaster-ness.  I usually walk out of the pulpit concluding, “I just preached half of a half formed sermon.”  And because I am a guy of second chances, I would love to give those another try.  Maybe another congregation would love it.  Maybe another day I would have more energy for it.  Maybe if I just tweaked that one transition.  I don’t know but I would love to try.

But I think it is necessary to refrain from that temptation.  I think that because I believe what a preacher offers the church is not a nice 20 minute booster speech every Sunday but a life lived in prayerful contemplation of the divine.  If all I had to offer every Sunday was data, then I should only be preaching like 10 sermons.  But I have so much more than that.  I have a life of reading, contemplation, struggle, hard decisions and prayer.

Simply put, what happens in the pastor’s study is so much more important than what is said from the pulpit.  If I have done the hard work of putting together something new every week, than when I get to the pulpit I will not offer my congregation the explanation of a Scripture passage through a clever metaphor or story.  Instead, I will offer them meditations gained from doing life with God.

When I pull out a dusty manuscript and pretty it up, I am short shrifting my own spiritual journey and my congregation’s desperate need for a contemplative.  Repeat sermons means I have not done the brutally difficult work of struggling with the God who is revealed through the Scriptures.  I have not read books and commentaries that have made uncomfortable.  I have not asked myself and God the hard questions and not been forced to choose between one attractive interpretation of a text and one more accurate.  Not doing those things leads to a shallowness that betrays the complexity of our faith.

One final, albeit more distant, reason is that study builds passion and passion sells sermons.  When I really struggle with a passage, I bring that struggle and that passion into the pulpit.  When I just dust off an old manuscript, that passion is missing as I go through the old motions.

This commitment to not repeat was especially hard last week as I have preached on the Ascension 8 or 9 times.  If you have read the beginning of Acts and ending of Luke, you know that those verses are not exactly begging for 8 sermons of completely new information.  They just say that Jesus ascended and that the apostle’s were promised a return.  The ascension is the one Sunday where a repeat Sermon makes sense.

And I have come close to repeating the same sermon 8 times but last week I decided I would have to break new ground if I didn’t want to get up and give my old, “The story isn’t over yet.” sermon.  So I consulted the lectionary and read Ephesians 1, a chapter that is not readily about the ascension.  Then I struggled with it, fought with it, interpreted it, argued with friends on Facebook about it and by Sunday I had a completely new sermon not about the story’s un-ending but about Jesus who sits down at the right hand of God and takes the church with him.

It would have been a lot easier to update a few jokes and stories and give the same message.  In fact, last week, that was all I thought I had the energy for.  However, beginning anew with a different passage from a book I had not yet dug into yet, made the trip worth it.  In the end, I invited my congregation to pray with the apostle Paul that the eyes of our hearts would be enlightened.  We lit candles for those whose hearts have not yet been enlightened and asked Go to reveal God’s self to them and for them to know the power that worked out the resurrection and the ascension, seating Jesus at the right hand of the Father of Glory.  It was not a result I would have predicted last Monday afternoon when I opened Ephesians 1 while asking, “why would the lectionary ever have this passage for Ascension Sunday?”