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?”

A Hermeneutic of Humor: Laughter’s The Best Word

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Yesterday I wrote about the absurdity hiding beneath the fragile fabric of our lives  I argued that the best way to keep it from overcoming us is to laugh.  Today I want to turn in a different direction and talk about how we read the Scriptures.

Scripture is filled with a different kind of absurdity, a quite Holy type that encourages us to laugh at ourselves as we try to get along with the God who created us.

So over the last year or so I have begun to realize that my own hermeneutical lens lands in the middle of irony, sarcasm and humor.  This does not mean I ignore every passage that does not make me laugh.  It just means I keep my eye open to the unexpected, looking for the hidden humor to show itself.

If I have learned anything from good comedians, it is that the unexpected makes us laugh.  And as Jerry Seinfield taught us, we laugh even harder when the unexpected is hiding behind the everyday events of our lives.  But we miss that humor because we are so accustomed to our lives that we don’t stop to reflect.

In the same way we are so familiar with some narratives and passages of Scripture that we don’t stop to look for what might be hiding in plain sight for us to see.  A Hermeneutic of Humor fights that tendency by keeping one’s eye out for what you do not expect.

For example, I read the Sermon on the Mount for years without realizing that in chapter 7 verse 11 Jesus calls his entire audience “evil.”  I grew up reading that passage but had enver stopped to think about how funny and interesting it is that Jesus just insults his whole audience right there in the middle of the Greatest Sermon Ever Preached.

The story of Samson is filled with all kinds of humor and irony that one would not expect.  Nowhere is this more evident than after Samson kills 1,000 Philistines with a donkey’s jawbone.  After the slaughter, Samson tells a joke.  The Hebrew is just a bunch of forms of the word donkey.  A literal English translation might be, “With a donkey, I made donkeys out of a donkey full of donkeys.”  However, the real punchline comes right after when suddenly Samson gets all emotional and collapses, begging God to kill him.  From anger to sarcasm to depression.  .  .that is a full day.

In 1st Corinthians 6 Paul is practically screaming at the Corinthians but in chapter 7 verse 1 he suddenly stops and says, “Now for the matters you asked about.”  The transition is so awkward it makes you laugh awkwardly.

The Prophet Daniel compares Babylon to a prostitute.  Most people are so accustomed to this that they miss the force of the metaphor.  The Babylonians were doing all kinds of nice things for the Jewish captives but their military was out torturing people and sacking cities and raping women.  So the force of the prostitute metaphor is that Babylon looks pretty and inviting on the street corner but I wouldn’t go taking her home or throwing good money and hormones after her.

In case you still are not sold read the Psalms and consider they sang these songs together in worship.  Some Psalms have lines like, “Appoint an evil man to replace him!” and “It is like precious oil running down Aaron’s Beard.”  Now that is quite mental image!

All of this is missed when we read Scripture in the comfort of our low expectations.  In contrast, a Hermeneutic of Humor keeps us on our toes.  It forces us to roll our eyes at Samson, laugh at Babylon and gasp in shock at Jesus.   It makes us rather uncomfortable around Paul and questions the Psalms we sing.   Most importantly, it keeps us from getting comfortable in our own jagged relationships with the Almighty.

But, like yesterday, I must offer a word of warning.  Not all of Scripture is ironic, sarcastic or humorous.  Some of it is quite sobering and when we read with an eye to the unexpected sometimes we are surprised not by humor, but by sorrow and anger and frustration.  When we open ourselves up to laughter, we might also open ourselves up to being offended or angered.

Still, there is much humor lying behind our relationships with the Almighty and sometimes I wonder if Scripture isn’t a testimony to the fact that God spends most of the time laughing at us and with us.