Gracious Residue

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This blog post will appear on a Tuesday but I am writing it on a Monday morning and so am in a post-Sunday reflective mood when it comes to preaching. I heard a good sermon yesterday morning and was even able to detail the sermon's highlights--and several of its specific salient details--to a colleague who popped by my office an hour ago. I am glad when that happens--glad when I hear a good sermon and glad when I can remember enough of it to talk about it. But a week from now--or next month--things will have gotten a bit foggier regarding yesterday's sermon. And there are any number of good sermons I have heard and been blessed by that...well, that I could not summon to mind if I tried.

I confess as a preacher who used to preach 2 new sermons just about every Sunday that come Monday or Tuesday--when I had to write down in my sermon log book what I had preached the day or two previous--sometimes it happened I'd find myself with my pen poised over the log book page and...nothing came to me. I could not recall the passage, I could not recall the sermon title. Sometimes I'd shake my head, let out an exasperated "Oh for Pete's sake," and finally dig out the bulletin to look up the sermon that I MYSELF HAD WORKED ON FOR A WEEK AND HAD PREACHED!!  Now, of course, once I looked it up, it came back to me but the point is: if sometimes we preachers get foggy on what we had just done, we should not fall down in despair in case we find parishioners who forget sermons.

Some years ago at Calvin Church in Grand Rapids I preached a sermon on the sacraments from Genesis 17. As it happened, I had preached that same sermon in my previous congregation in Fremont some years before and a friend of mine--who belonged to Calvin Church--had been there the Sunday I preached it. So when, after the Calvin Church service, this friend said that sermon sounded familiar, I assured him it was because he had heard it in Fremont. "Hmmm," he replied, "seems I heard it even more recently than that." I assured him he hadn't but then . . . something started to bug me. I went home. I took out the sermon log book. And as it turned out, well, I had indeed preached a version of this Genesis 17 sermon at Calvin Church only 2 years earlier. I had forgotten. But so, apparently, had everyone else as only this ONE person said it had rung any bells.

Moreover, this was a sermon people said they liked. But then, I also had the experience of preaching a mission emphasis sermon at an evening service and it was a sermon that the head of the missions committee liked so much, he insisted that some day I preach it again but at a morning service when more people would be present. Two or three years later I did this at a morning service and this same man came up to me to compliment the sermon to the skies. "Well, that's why you asked me to re-preach it, right?" I asked. "You've never preached that before" said the man (confidently) who had asked for the encore presentation!

Of course, it is also true that now and then I am taken aback by how well a given sermon stuck with someone. I've had people mention things to me that I cannot ever remember having said. Mostly, though, I tell my students to get used to the fact that individual sermons--yes, even the ones that go over really well--may not be remembered long.

Should preachers despair over this? Not at all. Because as much as anything, it is the overall arc of a given preacher's sermons that over time build up a kind of happy, gracious residue in people's souls. People learn to think like a Christian, to parse their pains and difficulties in theologically smart and biblically informed ways. Preachers who take care (as all preachers should) again and again to proclaim grace and hope and joy convey over time that grace and hope and joy are the main items of the faith. It's not about doom-and-gloom, hellfire-and-brimstone--not firstly and not at the end of the Gospel day. It's about noticing the marginalized, about forgiving each other again and again, about holding on to hope even when life's dodgiest and toughest questions are staring us right in the face.  It's about resurrection and new beginnings and fresh hope all the time.

Any given sermon might teach some or all of this but it is when over many years of preaching to a congregation that all of these key sensibilities are touched upon that people start to "get it," that the main things of the faith are not so much taught to them but caught by them.

The longest I preached in one place was Calvin Church across 12 years and about 900 sermons. I suppose I could be pretty disappointed were I to quiz any given parishioner as to the specifics of this or that sermon or sermon series. But sometimes I meet up with these people and they will say something like, "One thing I remember about your preaching is that you were a 'grace guy.' You always brought us back to grace and hope. I liked that."

So do I. But it's the Holy Spirit who does this, not the preacher. As William Willimon once noted in a lecture, every Sunday all over the world the Spirit meets the preacher just before he goes into the pulpit, grabs the sermon out of the preacher's hands and says, "Let me see that thing, son. Well, I'll see what I can do with it." And every time in every church where that Spirit is blowing, that sermon wings its way into people's hearts in about as many different ways as there are people listening.

It's an amazing thing the Spirit does, building up a gracious residue of faith and knowledge in people one sermon at a time. The specifics may not linger.  It's the grace that sticks. Good thing, too, because in the end, it's that grace that saves.

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Hebrews 5: 11 We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand. 12 In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! 13 Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

Heb 6 Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death,[a] and of faith in God, 2 instruction about cleansing rites,[b] the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And God permitting, we will do so.

4 It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age 6 and who have fallen[c] away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. 7 Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. 8 But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.

9 Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are convinced of better things in your case—the things that have to do with salvation. 10 God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. 11 We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized. 12 We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.

Participant

"Could you cook all the meals that have nourished you in your life?" I asked, somewhat defensively, as a rookie preacher, when a man said in a group of people that he had heard enough sermons in his life that he could probably write and present one himself. I think it is a fair analogy, and I hear hints of it in what Scott wrote. Fair, minus the defensiveness.

My sister and I did a highly appreciated skit at a event celebrating our father's x number of years in the ministry, years ago. In the skit, our punchline was that we as kids would watch and test-taste the pan of soup Dad made on Saturday as he was finishing up his sermon. If it was spicy, watch out on Sunday! If it was bland, be ready as well.

I suppose I like food-nutrient analogies for sermons. 

You might not be able to cook all the meals, but certainly you should be able to serve them.

Should not sermons be delivering the recipes?  And should not you then be able to share these recipes with others?

Participant

Serve it up: Maybe, probably not. Presentation matters and is a skill/craft/gift of it's own.

Deliver the Recipe: No, definitely not.

Share the Recipe: No.

The Word is not a recipe book. To turn it into recipes is a dimunition and a violation in my view.

 

 

 

 

Hmm.  The difficulty with an analogy is that the desire to understand it is key.  I understand your analogy of  food for the body to food for the soul.  But, you should understand my poor analogy of recipe and serving as well.  I understand the Word is not a recipe book... its just an analogy.   You don't have to be a master chef in order to bring some hot dogs, relish, roasting sticks, marshmallows to a picnic.  Its not hard to add some corn and honey dew melons, and presto, you have a meal.  Fairly nourishing, especially if you add some tomatoes and carrots from the garden.   It might not be the only meal you would want, but you wouldn't starve.

Presentation matters?  It probably helps.  But maybe it doesn't.  Presentation that clarifies for one person is a roadblock for another person.  Moses thought he couldn't speak... so he got Aaron to help.  But either way, presentation would not have changed the outcome for someone who had his own agenda.

The problem I sometimes see is that some people are only ever concerned about being fed.  Feeding others is not their concern.  They get spiritually fat and spiritually lazy as a result.

Now I know the Word is not a recipe book;  perhaps more of a plan for building a house on a solid foundation.  But no analogy is perfect.  Our relationship with God is not a house, after all;  yet Jesus used this analogy.  Was it the apostle   that wrote:  leaving aside the milk of the gospel, the elementary things, for the meat is what we should be looking for?  Being fed what?  What's the milk?  what's the meat?  He seems to allude to the "recipe" being the meat... in other words, how do we live?   How do we shape our lives in response to God's grace?   Hebrews 5 and 6.  How do we cook the "meat...?

Ironically, it is only in sharing the "recipe", that we learn more about it.  And if we demonstrate the "recipe" (christian living) or forget certain items in the recipe, our actions speak louder than our words.

Here is a response from another blog on the Network by Larry Dornboos.  The response was by   Norman Sennema on May 10, 2014  I thought the whole thing was very relevant and spoke my thoughts well, so I'm including the whole thing.

"Thanks for sharing this, a great topic, one that I have been personally wrestling with. I would avoid the extremes (no need for shepherds at all, calling people only to be 'self-feeders'), but would encourage a rethink of how we think about shepherding. I would like to add to this discussion, and to hear what your responses to my 'rant' might be.

1) An important qualifier is that we are under-shepherds, working for the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:1-4). My fear is that instead of helping the sheep hear His Voice (John 10:27), we are training people to know our voice. They come to rely on us to interpret scripture for them. Or if they don't like our voice, they look for a shepherd who's voice they prefer. The shepherds need to improve their voice to keep their audience, and compete with others in order to satisfy their sheep... or they look for greener pastures. Somehow we need to teach the sheep to hear His Voice whenever scripture is opened, whether the sermon is good or bad, the speaker is dynamic or bland, ordained or not ordained. For me, the Voice of God (Logos, Jesus) is more important than the mouthpiece (which we need too); whether the mouthpiece is a professor, pastor or pew-sitter, a sunday school teacher, a parent, a youth group leader, or a stranger on the street, God's Voice needs to be heard. 

2) I would suggest adding another image to help us explain the shepherding image: a parent (1 Thessalonians 2:7-12). When children are young, they need to be fed. But eventually they need to learn to feed themselves, and eventually even feed others. This does not end the parents role, they still help them get the food, help them prepare it for a time, but the children eat for themselves. And soon they are able to prepare a meal, and maybe even surprise their parents with a meal prepared for them. And one day, they will have opportunity to feed their own children. By feeding themselves, I don't mean 'self-feeding' as you characterized it (independent, individualistic). Eating and feeding should always be communal affairs, but at some point the kids need to grow up and eat... with the support of the community. My experience is that we make 'food preparation' so complicated that you have to have a seminary degree to do it rightly. We not only lead our sheep to the table, we precut the food, we decide on what to eat, when and how, we even make them sit quiet and still while we spoon feed them. This makes sense for babies, but when do they grow up? See Hebrews 5:11-14, where eventually the babes become teachers, who by constant use they have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

3) How many of us have heard those dreaded words, 'I'm not being fed'. They make it sound as if they are deeper than we are, that their maturity level has grown beyond our shepherding skills. But that is not what I hear. I hear baby robbins squawking in the nest, demanding that we give them what they want - feed me, love me, help me, teach me, care for me, comfort me... This is the kind of SELF-feeding that I think we need to address. They have not grown up, they are still in their high chairs, with their clean bibs, waiting for us to spoon feed them. Is this cycnical... maybe? True of everyone... of course not. But it is I fear a common pattern, one that is related to our traditional shepherding/preaching ideas and practices.

4) I am presently serving in a long time 'church plant' setting. We have lots of babes in Christ, and they do not know how to hear God's Voice. But they have learned enough of churchianity to know that some shepherds provide better sermons than others. I have felt the pressure to perform better, to compete with the mega-shepherds. But that is not the way I want to go. I am who I am, and I do the best I can. I need to instill in them a love for God's Voice in scripture, and an ability to feed themselves in community, to grow up and eventually become teachers, who by constant use of Scripture have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. My sermons are not all great, and some of them are pretty bad, but the scripture is always great, and God's Voice can always be heard. 

5) So I am trying something, and praying that it will help. I've adopted a three year bible-reading schedule. I hand out the readings each week, and highlight which reading from that list I will be preaching on next Sunday. The handout has open space for them to answer the question beneath each reading, 'what do you hear God saying?'. I blog my own reflections for each reading, each day, and ask them to post their own thoughts. I email 5-10 members each week and ask them to share their responses to the upcoming Scripture passage, and incorporate their responses into the message (I would love to meet weekly with some, as I've heard other pastors do, but in my busy, commuter culture meeting time is at a premium). On Sunday morning, I attempt a partial 'lectio' by reading the scripture, pausing, then reading it again. Then I ask them to share what they hear God saying in the scripture. Finally, I share some of my own reflections, trying to model how we need to all hear God's Voice in scripture. I am letting them know that one day I may be asking them to publicly share their own reflections in a 'sermon'. So far only two have done so... but in time.

6) I have discouraged them from saying 'good sermon' to me after the service (that was easy, not too many did). Instead I've urged them to share with me if they heard God speaking to them - teaching, rebuking, correcting, training, comforting, blessing, etc. - in the service. Sometimes it was in a prayer, sometimes in a song, sometimes in message. One time a young girl shared with me what God said to her in the passage, and it had nothing to do with my 'sermon'. Thing is, after I heard what she said, I myself heard God differently, through her 'sermon'! I am often surprised and blessed by what others hear God saying in scripture. I realize that all my training and experience gives me tunnel vision, seeing things that others don't see, and missing (obvious) things that others do see. Reading scripture and hearing God is indeed a communal activity - we should stop restricting it to the educated and qualified few. 

7) I fear that our emphasis on ordination and the formal 'preaching of the word' has held back the church. We stress the anointing of the pastor, but scripture also stresses the anointing of the disciples, so that they do not need anyone to teach them (1 John 2:26-27). It is the Spirit that teaches us, it is the scripture that is God-breathed and useful, a double-edged sword. Why is it that so many christians do not know how to proclaim (preach, share) Jesus in the marketplace? Because we've hired that task out to a limited few. When the early church was persecuted, the disciples that scattered preached the word wherever they went (Acts 8:1-4); today they just look for another church to preach it to them. Think of the story of the church in China, when the communist government killed the pastors, burned the bibles and books, sent away the missionaries, scattered the churches, closed the seminaries. The west thought for sure the church was toast; but they (and the Chinese government) forgot about the Holy Spirit, the Chief Shepherd, and the power of God's Voice. When the walls in China finally opened a little, the west found a thriving church. Still to this day ordinary people (without seminary training) are being used by God to speak, and be heard. We need to learn from them!!!

Conclusion. Do we still need shepherds? Yes! But do we need to rethink what shepherds do, and how they do it? YES! Reading scripture for yourself is not the self-feeding that concerns me. I feel the bigger problem is the SELF-FEEDING of baby sheep that never seem to grow up and learn to feed others."

And I would add, that it seems sometimes the shepherds only feed, and do not teach others to feed.  They give the flock a fish, but never a fishing rod.  (mixed metaphor... but you get the idea).