Preaching, I have learned over the last few months, is a labor of love. It is so in many senses. Preachers preach because God loves them and because they love God. Preachers preach because they love the Scriptures and their congregation. But the labor of love I am thinking about is a bit more, how might you say it, high schoolish? Continue reading
In the summer of 2015, I was a chaplain at a camp in North Carolina. I preached to hundreds of campers and mentored approximately fifty counselors. In the summer of 2015, about four and a half hours from my camp, Dylann Roof walked into a church and murdered nine black people who were praying. In my preaching and teaching at camp, I said nothing. I knew what happened and I chose to say nothing. Honestly, I cannot say whether I stayed silent out of fear or out of foolishness or, perhaps, because of my own inherent racism. None of those reasons are acceptable. Lord, forgive me for the things I’ve said and the things I’ve left unsaid.
In the summer of 2017, I’ve been gifted with another opportunity to preach. This time, the community is a wild group of all kinds of people called Anchor Community Church. And though Anchor is more diverse than many churches in Fort Wayne, racism is still alive in our neighborhood. Confederate flags fly from two different houses near to the church building. As I walk to my church’s building, those flags remind me that we need to keep preaching to confront racism. The question is how do we preach to confront racism?
In a recent Weekender, I asked: Can preaching ever be apolitical? My hunch is that the answer has to be no, preaching can never be apolitical. But I need to explain what I mean by political if we are going to be on the same page. Former United Methodist bishop and professor of ministry Will Willimon offers a helpful way of understanding political:
To speak among the baptized, those who are dying and being raised (Romans 6:4), is to enter into a world of odd communication and peculiar speech. Baptismal speech need not conform to the reasons of this world (Romans 12:2). Conversation among the baptized is ecclesial in nature, political. A peculiar polis is being formed here, a family, a holy nation, a new people where once there was none (these images are all baptismal, 1 Peter 2:9)” (Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized, p. 4).
For Willimon, political does not simply refer to Republican versus Democrat, or America versus Russia. He leans on the root word polis, city, to describe what political speech does. It “forms” a city, “a new people where once there was none.” Yet that city is formed in the midst of the broader world. So, Willimon continues, saying, Continue reading
Martin Luther regularly collected and published his sermons following the calendar of the church year. They were known as “postils,” and during his life they were some of his most read and beloved works. Luther himself was pleased with them but lamented that some “lazy” preachers read them word-for-word from the pulpit:
There are some lazy, no-good pastors and preachers who depend on these and many other good books that they can take a sermon out of. They don’t pray, study or read, pondering nothing in Scripture, just as if we need not read the Bible, using such books as a template and calendar to earn their living (LW 6281-85).
I appreciate Luther’s point, but I am conflicted. Let me explain.
On one hand, preaching verbatim another person’s sermon detracts from the essence of preaching: the pastor stands among his or her congregation and in the power of the Holy Spirit speaks the Word of the Lord as it is refracted through his or her unique humanity. That refraction, or mediation, is what makes preaching different, more even, than simply reading the Scriptures aloud. It affirms the goodness of creation as it is experienced in the preacher’s own humanity (docetism always lurks in the wings). So, beyond Luther’s point about the pastor’s engagement with the Scriptures through prayer in preparation for delivering a sermon (certainly right), there is also something distinctly human about preaching that is lost when a sermon from someone else is delivered.
Further, a sermon is spoken in the midst of the particular moment of a church’s life, a moment surely common to others but one that has never before occurred and never will again. The time in which a sermon is proclaimed is unique in the history of the cosmos: this pastor, in the midst of this congregation, at this moment in history! The human and historical essence of preaching is depleted by preaching a sermon that is not native to a community.
In Luther’s case the pastors forthrightly read his postils, but today it often happens without anyone’s knowledge. The son of a nationally known author and speaker told me that his father was once visiting a church and heard one of his sermons preached. Even the personal illustrations from his family’s life were used! I have also known several churches that removed their pastors for preaching sermons they found on the internet or borrowed from others. Pastors are under much pressure to perform in the pulpit, and the internet is an easy source of content.
On the other hand – hear me out – perhaps a pastor can rightly do what Luther lamented. Continue reading
I have been slowly journeying through the first volume of Iain Murray’s two-volume biography of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (David Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The First Forty Years 1899-1939 [Banner of Truth, 1982]) and have been at various points taken in by the Welsh preacher’s aversion to self-absorption and to ‘bells and whistles’ in ministry even in the midst of his apparent pastoral fervor and spiritual vitality. Indeed, in this aversion to anything like the personality-driven ministries that are so prevalent in our time, ‘the Doctor’ might have even resented this blog post, were he still alive. Nevertheless, certain dimensions of his story are, I think, remarkably suggestive for Christian ministry today and are worthy of our consideration.
A couple of the episodes recorded by Murray distill Lloyd-Jones’s commitment to getting himself out of the way in the proclamation of the gospel and to ensuring that the church was borne along by the power of God’s word and Spirit rather than by clever human devices. For Lloyd-Jones’s initial visit to preach at Aberavon, the site of his soon-to-be first pastorate, the church secretary (E. T. Rees) had put up a large poster to advertise the advent of the exciting prospective minister. Murray relates the Doctor’s response:
‘I don’t like that, don’t do it again,’ he told E. T. Rees in authoritative tones (p. 119).
For John Owen (who is perhaps the most famous of all my friends on Facebook, though I know not who runs his Facebook page), ‘the first and principal duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the word’ (The True Nature of a Gospel Church, in The Works of John Owen, 16:74). Throughout The True Nature of a Gospel Church Owen insists that pastoral work is so taxing that God appointed elders who primarily rule in the church in order to enable elders who focus especially on the ministry of the word to keep doing just that. Owen enumerates five non-negotiables that render someone fit to stand in the pulpit.
First, the preacher needs to have ‘spiritual wisdom and understanding in the mysteries of the gospel’. In fact, says Owen, it is vital that the preacher should have ‘some degree of eminency therein’, lest they be unhelpful to those who are already fairly mature in the faith (16:76). Second, the preacher should have an ‘experience of the power of the truth which they preach in and upon their own souls’. Put forcefully,
[A] man that preacheth that sermon only well unto others which preacheth itself in his own soul. And he that doth not feed on and thrive in the digestion of the food which he provides for others will scarce make it savoury unto them; yea, he knows not but the food he hath provided may be poison, unless he have really tasted of it himself. If the word do not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us….The want of this experience of the power of gospel truth on their own souls is that which gives us so many lifeless, sapless orations, quaint in words and dead as to power, instead of preaching the gospel in the demonstration of the Spirit (ibid.).
Whatever the attributes of God were of old, that they are now; and of each of them we may sing “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.” Was he powerful? Was he the mighty God when he spake the world out of the womb of non-existence? Was he the Omnipotent when he piled the mountains and scooped out the hollow places for the rolling deep? Yes, he was powerful then, and his arm is unpalsied now; he is the same giant in his might; the sap of his nourishment is undried, and the strength of his soul stands the same for ever. Was he wise when he constituted this mighty globe, when he laid the foundations of the universe? Had he wisdom when he planned the way for our salvation, and when from all eternity he marked out his awful plans? Yes, and he is wise now; he is not less skilful, he has not less knowledge; his eye which seeth all things is undimmed; his ear which heareth all the cries, sighs, sobs, and groans of his people, is not rendered heavy by the years which he hath heard their prayers. He is unchanged in his wisdom; he knows as much now as ever, neither more nor less; he has the same consummate skill, and the same infinite forecastings. He is unchanged, blessed be his name, in his justice. Just and holy was he in the past; just and holy is he now. He is unchanged in his truth; he has promised, and he brings it to pass; he hath said it, and it shall be done. He varies not in his goodness, and generosity, and benevolence of his nature. He is not become [sic] an Almighty tyrant, whereas he was once an Almighty Father; but his strong love stands like a granite rock, unmoved by the hurricanes of our iniquity. And blessed be his dear name, he is unchanged in his love. When he first wrote the covenant, how full his heart was with affection to his people. He knew that his Son must die to ratify the articles of that agreement. He knew right well that he must rend his beloved from his bowels, and send him down to earth to bleed and die. He did not hesitate to sign that mighty covenant; nor did he shun its fulfilment. He loves as much now as he did then; and when suns cease to shine, and moons to show their feeble light, he still shall love on for ever and for ever. Take any one attribute of God, and I will write semper idem on it” (C. H. Spurgeon, “The Immutability of God,” in New Park Street Pulpit, vol. 1 [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007], pp. 2-3).