By Paul Koch –
I took a few days off last week to spend some time with my family. We took the kids to Sea World and then went to my in-law’s home so my wife and I could spend a relaxing weekend alone. With no sermon to prepare and no service to get together, I began to unwind. In the midst of the cocktails and conversation I could feel the stress leave my shoulders. We slept in on Sunday morning for the first time in many months. After enjoying a leisurely breakfast at a quaint little diner, we had to make the decision if we would go to church or not. Google promptly located one nearby. After checking their website on my phone, I noticed we could just make their late service.
Now you would think that this would be an easy decision. After all, I really like church. It is nice to be able tosit with my wife for a change and simply receive the gifts as they are given rather being the one who is to hand them over. The problem is, over the years I’ve grown to be incredibly judgmental. It is difficult to just sit and receive. I tend to pick apart everything in the service from the choice of hymns, to the style of worship, to the sermon. But I resolved to try again to just relax and receive the gifts of my Lord as they came. Soon I found myself sitting in a pew beside my bride.
Sure, the songs weren’t what I would’ve chosen. In fact I didn’t even know any of them. But there was a baptism, which is always a joy to behold, as God works death and life in a cute little sinner all dressed in white. Then came the sermon…
It was a delightful history lesson of the people of God. It was a well-researched paper on God’s mighty acts in times long past. But it never made it around to proclamation. It never gave the hope in Christ. It never set the bound free. Oh, he talked about our bondage (not directly; actually more like vague mentions of our sinfulness) and he encouraged us to fight against it. He even suggested that we had to overcome it. But he never did anything about it. I was upset and could feel the stress begin to tighten in my shoulders again.
Now, I assumed that I was just being too judgmental. I thought that I was overreacting because I operate with a very narrow definition of what preaching is or ought to be. We smiled and shook hands on the way out. We politely talked with a few of the flock and made our way to the car. No sooner had I put the car in reverse, my wife said, “Not only was that not comforting to the brokenhearted, it wasn’t even right!”
I can’t seem to figure out is how this happens; how does preaching go awry?
I was in the home of The Cantankerous Critic the other evening. It was a gathering of the folks doing work with the 1517 Legacy Project. The room was filled with a bunch of pastors, theologians, philosophers, historians, etc. I lamented about my inquiry several times with no real solution. Most blame seminary training that was somehow faulty. Cultural influences will creep in to skew the task of the preacher. There are chinks in the defensive armor that change the preacher over time. If this is true, then what can we do about it? If that is the reason things go awry, is it simply an inevitable reality that sermons will move away from proclamation? Will we all eventually just hear stories about Christ and what he has done? Will the present tense words of proclamation always slide into past tense rhetoric?
To phrase it much more selfishly, how can I prevent myself from the following such a path? How do I shore up my defenses to keep at bay the many distractions that would drive my words into the past tense?
The answer, I think, is no different for pastors than for the rest of the children of God. The question of how to defend against the temptations and distractions of our world lies not in our strength and courage, but in the strength and courage of each other. Just as I sat there in the pew and was dependent on a Word from outside of myself to speak death and life into me, also in our vocational struggles we are dependent upon things outside of us to aid us along the way. I do not believe that we are designed to do this alone. Whether you are a preacher or a lay person, a professor or construction worker, a father or mother, we are simply better and stronger together than we ever are alone.
As pastors, it is when we engage in conversation, debate, and open critique that we gain the ability to observe. We will see the dangers of new habits setting in and see the errors of old ones that are hard to remove. It is when the body of Christ comes together, continuing to speak God’s Law and Gospel to each other, that strength and courage are renewed. Without our brothers and sisters we will be doomed to simply believe our own delusions.
As the Catechism reminds us, we who have been gathered to our Lord through the redeeming work of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit have also been gathered together.
“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.
In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one truth faith.”
– Martin Luther, “Small Catechism” (2nd Article of the Creed)