A Preacher’s Commitments Part 3: The Need for a Response

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When I consider the standard evangelical worship service, two things bug me more than anything else.  The first is how they begin.  The second is how they end.

I have lately been captivated by the High Church processionals that begin the worship of our more liturgical siblings.  If you have never been to one, find one tomorrow.  Here is what you might experience.

In the stained glass sanctuaries (many of them designed in the shape of a cross) people are milling about, finding places to sit and connecting with friends and neighbors.  Then the pipe organ plays one definitive note and everybody knows to find their seats, open their hymnals and quiet their hearts.  The organ follows up the first note with the lines from some triumphant hymn.  Then all manner of worship leaders (priests, altar boys and girls, scripture readers, incense bearers, servers and the like) parade in while the congregation sings the glorious hymn.

My services begin with a “hi, how y’all doin?” and that just doesn’t cut it.

So, too, last fall I grew quite discontent with how my services ended.  What usually happened was I preached, then prayed, then gave a benediction.  Some days I forgot the benediction.  On those days the congregation stared at me blankly, waiting for something more that was not there.  So I feebly said, “oh, uh, go in peace.”

I tried to placate my growing frustration by telling my music team that we would always do a closing song.  We sang it between the sermon and the benediction and always tried to choose that song well.  It worked well enough but could only slow the growth of my frustration, not dispense with it entirely.

Because the worship service was never supposed to end with the sermon.  Historically, the sermon was a means to another end, a piece of a growing crescendo that found its fulfillment in the Eucharist.  Thus my sacramental friends would say that the Eucharist should be the congregational response to every sermon and they are right.  I would love to end every service at the table of the Lord.  However, my congregation is not there yet

So when I moved, I realized I would have to double down on my creativity and come up with other unique, symbol based, movement oriented responses to my sermons.

Even if and when we do get to the point where we eat at the Table every Sunday, I think it is still fitting to have some other symbol based, movement oriented response to the sermon because everything I am reading about performance, entertainment, worship and the arts says that we now require all senses to be engaged.  Under this thinking, when we focus so much on the audible, in say a spoken sermon, then we cut out 4/5ths of the worship experience.

With that in mind, my final step in preparing a sermon is to come up with such a response that will allow the congregation to do something to connect with the message.

In a sermon on fear, we sang, “Cast All Your Cares” while the congregation wrote their fears on sticky notes and stuck them to the altars.  (Bonus: I had several things to pray for all week long!)

In a sermon on regret I had the congregation write letters giving their younger selves advice.

In a sermon on God shredding the heavens to be present to us, I had my congregation write down things that were inhibiting their worship of God and then shred those things in shredders lining the altars.

In a sermon about being in the world but not of it, I identified four key tensions and had the congregation divide into four groups where they could pray for wisdom to live into that tension.

Last week in a sermon about loved ones who are living in ignorance of the great treasures God has for us, I had the congregation light candles as they prayed for those loved ones.

And of course, once a month we gather around the Lord’s Table.  On those Sundays the sermons build towards the table so that the table is the necessary response to the message.

The problem, of course, is that it usually takes a bunch of creativity to just write a sermon, let alone come up with some creative response to follow it.  However, I trust that as I work hard at interacting with the text and the congregation than God will reward that work by giving me a response.  And so far God has not let me down, though some weeks the response has come flying into my brain on Sunday morning at 9am.

With all that said, it would very remiss of me to not mention that the ultimate response to the spoken word is not just a creative, tactile response or even just the Eucharist.  The end of worship is ultimately the sending.  When we have gathered to hear the written word and commune with the Living Word, we are sent to be the Body of the Living Word to a world in need of a savior.

So after the response and the song, I always put great emphasis on the sending with the hopes that my congregation will understand that church does not end at noon Sunday but rather the church is sent at noon Sunday to love God and love their neighbors every day of the week.

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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?”