Saturday, April 05, 2008

On Preaching, for the heck of it

A recent email got me writing about why I've gone almost exclusively to an "expository" style preaching. I thought I might post the answer here:

I first learned about "expository preaching" in Homoletics ("sermon") classes at the seminary. In essence, it is a style of preaching which focuses on following the text very, very closely. By and large, however, the idea was "poo-pooed" by good "Law-Gospel" LCMSutherans because "not all lectionary texts have the Gospel in them, and so you might end up preaching only law, and, remember(!) the law kills, so its bad." Most the advocates of the style are actually baptists and closet-baptists (aka - non-denoms) who like to spend the summer before a big building campaign preaching straight through Nehemiah to show how God wants us to build temples, etc. You know, "sticking to the text." Rather misguided as these preachers (to whom the Bible tends to be a closed book) are, the idea of letting the the Bible actually BE your sermon is awesome. (More to follow on that.)

But first, lest the "but there's not any Gospel" Waltherians rise up and shout me down, I must rush to point out how conveniently flawed such an argument is if one actually believes in sola Scriptura. And by that, I don't mean that you preach the law from Jeremiah and the Gospel from Romans 6. I mean that if you take 15 minutes of your sermon prep to plum the depths of the immediate surrounding texts of the lectionary text, it is a virtual guarantee that you will find Gospel within 1 chapter in either direction. That's what those pesky "exegetes" in the "Bible-reading" department call "context." It's pretty cool stuff. :D Not only do things start to make sense, but, suddenly, preaching gets really, really EASY.

So...why is it easy? Why is it radically awesome?

1. The only "plato" in church should be used to make pink snowmen. Well into my first year after Seminary, trying to salvage an absolutely defunk and flagrantly antagonistic (if not diabolic) congregation, which would soon destroy itself from within, I found myself "struggling" every time I sat down to write a sermon. See, I'd been taught at the Seminary that it was my job as pastor to figure out what the text was telling me that I needed to preach to my people that week. I wasn't supposed to preach the text. I was supposed to divine from the text what to preach. I needed to find the "real" meaning which lay somewhere behind the text, the mystical-mythical platonic "Law-Gospel" perfection ideal. I needed to solvent this text down to its microscopic elemental substance. Only then could I bring it up to date and into "real" life by the use of clever stories, metaphors and other ways for the modern (read:stupid) laymen to "really get it."

Check it out: this is damned HARD! The text doesn't tell you what to preach. You must find that, through your prayer and fasting and constant searching the hidden will of God for the magic needed this week to get your congregation into REAL Christianity. I almost hesitate to point out this crypto-methodism for what it is, but, well, the pietism comes in later. This is just pure Wesley in disguise. And, frankly, it leads to pastoral despair - especially for those of us in those defunk, semi-diabolical congregations that would rather see your 3 year old daughter be the pastor than you. (I admit it: she is dang cute, after all.)

But notice the gnosticism evident - the searching for the real, secret knowledge, which isn't actually the text, but behind it. Notice the old-school liberal connection, which also didn't see the Bible as the Word of God, but the Word as something which hid within the Bible, but which needed to be found and even made alive.

2. All I ever needed to know about homoletics I learned in hermeneutics. I still remember my professor, the venerable Dr. Reed Lessing, teaching a fantastic summer course in "how to read the Bible like a Christian" saying, "To know what it means I need to know what it meant."


It was about the same time that I was driving myself nuts, about to break out the urum and the thumin late on a Thursday afternoon, with no clue what to preach to this people who hated me simply because the district had sent me to them, when a friend of mine called. He wasn't worried about all about what he was preaching Sunday:

"I'm taking the week off. I'm letting Paul preach."


"Paul is going to preach. Colossians chapter 1. I'm just going to preach it. It's his argument, and it's great."


What an idea! Preach the Bible? Let the Bible do the preaching? It almost makes too much sense to be true!

I tried it. Blessed sermon! Maybe, if it works for Paul, it will work for Luke. ...

3. Bringing the Hammer. And let me tell you, when you're needing to preach the law to a room half full of people who hate the law because its killing them, and aren't listening because they hate you anyway, being able to ask them to open the Bible and follow along is the most blessed gift from heaven. No longer are you "that angry pastor who doesn't want us to be happy," (at least, that's not all you are.) In fact, you can even be really nice as you deliver the back-breaking law: "'If you, even though you are evil...' Dang, that's pretty harsh. But Jesus is saying it, so it must be true. ..." And so on.

For them, for the hearers, it's now God's Word, not yours. They can't debate that point. They can't question it. They either must reject God's Word for what it is, or repent and believe it. But it takes the "that's just pastor's opinion that I'm a sinner" straight out of the building.

4. Teaching the Word, in season and out. To boot, at best, 30% of any parish are involved in Sunday Bible study classes. That's just a sad fact. A large number of people will never come. So, why not take the Bible study to them? Yes, it can't really be done in 12 minutes. It takes 25 to 30. But, well...... oh, well! After all, that's what the sermon's supposed to do: Bring the Word. Heck, that's all Luther did, and it was longer than 30 minutes. Forget the "attention span" thing. The people have the Bible right in front of them. You're giving them something to DO. They participate. And, crazy of crazies, they actually like it. They like it because it's easy to follow. They like it because they feel like they're learning. They like it because it' the Bible. And they like it because (unlike those hidden Gnostic truths BEHIND the text) it ALWAYS has direct application to their life, right now. ALWAYS.

To illustrate this point, an anecdote. Over the last year I spent a lot of time as a visitation preacher. At one particularly "healthy" congregation (in that it was fairly stablized and had young families,) a sweet little old lady approached me in the greeting line and said, "Not one story or joke. Just Word. Wonderful." She smiled, and moved on.

5. Grind, grind, grind, all day long. Grind, grind, grind while I sing this song. Finally, we must learn to reckon with the recent abomination of desolation coined by Father Marc Paine of Mississippi as the "Law-Gospel Meat-grinder." What he meant by this is that, for the last 60 years, LCMSutheran pastors have been trained to preach based on the "Goal-malady-means" rubric, a structure from the forties attempting to apply Walther's great work "Law and Gospel" to preaching. Here's what it means:

The pastor gets in the pulpit.

He tells you you're a sinner and can't do anything about it. (Often picking on one sin that is internal, but just as often focusing on original sin.)

He tells you how Jesus makes this sin go away.

Then, he wields his magical "3rd use of the law" to "Gospel-imperative" you into living better anyway.

The result of this, en masse, is simply that people stop listening. They learn to accept and even mimic that "I'm a sinner part," (although, confront them with actual sins and they will deny it with all vehemence,) and they embrace the "Jesus is my ticket to heaven" part. And most of them simply ignore the "so now you get to" part. In the end, you have a bunch of lazy "believers" who are going to heaven after they live till 80, retire in style, and die. As for what they do in this world, that's pretty much up to them.

They've been meat-grinded. They are now bonafide LCMSutheran blood-sausage.

Now, there are two minorities which also remain. The first is the enthusiast who really thinks he is doing everything the pastor says "now let us do...." The other is the poor Christian who is actually a sinner, and is never able to hear the Gospel because, in the meat-grinder, the Gospel is only a means to an ends. "Jesus died for you SO THAT YOU CAN DO..." That is what each sermon is really about. It's not about Jesus. It's about how this congregation (and ME) need to be better at being Christians.

Inherent in this very Reformed view of Christianity is the complete bastardization of the "3rd use of the law." Unlike our confessional norm describes the ways in which the Spirit of God uses ONE law to do three things, the homoletics of LCMSutherans has decided that the "3rd use of the law" is actually a DIFFERENT law. It's the law that you CAN keep. It's the law which we can magically insert after the Gospel and make all our congregations into "alive" churches.

So...the sermon outline of Meat-Grinder is something like this:

A. Lex sempre acussat (that is, accusation AS the law)
B. "Gospel" (Romans 6, 8 or some part of Galatians, regardless of the pericope)
C. pietism ("real Christians live like this, so you need to too...")

6. Getting smaller every day. Does it work? The state of the LCMS would lead one to say, "" The best case scenario is a congregation full of people an inch-deep understanding of Law and Gospel, but very little actual understanding of their sin, or of justification. They do not know "justification" "too well," (as many seminarians are wont to say,) but NOT ENOUGH AT ALL! All they know is a free ticket to semi-hedonistic licentiousness under the name of Jesus. The worst case scenario is a nearly empty parish full of very angry people who think they're going to heaven because they make quilts for Jesus, (a few of those around these days,) or very large parishes that have followed the path of pietistic phariseeism to the logical conclusion and simply joined the Wesleyan Church-growth movement.

LCMSutherans do less and less. The new schwarmer do more and more. Carnal self-security is rampant in both camps. And those who are really listening wallow in doubt, fear and despair, unsure if they are really Christians after all.


So...there you go. The end result of this, in my opinion, is we need to just start preaching God's actual Word again. Do Bible study from the pulpit. Stop trying to compete with entertainment and oratory, and just get the Word in front of the people. Stop trying to change the Word so that the people "get it." TEACH them to get it. (If you can't teach, resign. You shouldn't be a pastor.) This is Luther's expository preaching which MADE the Reformation. This is how he reached both milkmaids and princes. This is how he sat in Wittenburg, drank beer, and let the Word of God destroy the papacies tyranny over Europe.

If you preach the text, you will have no choice. You will be preaching God's Word. You will be preaching real Law. And you will be preaching real Gospel.

And the best part of all? No more scouring the internet and your life for stories to tell. You may not realize it, but your people don't want to hear that stuff anyway.


Dizziness said...

Words well spoken and worth taking to heart. Thank you.

RevFisk said...

Thanks for the comment! They always keep me posting. :D

Pastor Russ said...

Some excellent points, for sure, and you've given me a lot to think about. However, it came off as if this is the only (and therefore best) way to preach a sermon and anything that diverts from that is inferior. Perhaps that's my own insecurity. Perhaps I'm completely reading something into your post that's simply not there. But the way it sounds to me is that if I incorporate any kind of story or personal anecdotes into my sermons, I'm doing a bad job. Again, maybe I'm reading too much into it but I think of Jesus' teaching style and using analogies (e.g. the kingdom of heaven is like...") and illustrations (i.e. the parables). I really try hard not to add fluff but always have a teaching point for adding stories or even humor. Perhaps I'm just missing something here or our definitions of expository preaching are different. I'm not trying to be antagonistic. Challenging, yes - but not argumentative.

Anonymous said...

I had Dr. Peter and he basically said the same thing, namely : "Preach the text, gentlemen. You don't need to snazz it up or even force any theology into it. God's Word speaks itself... give that to your hearers."


Rev. Matt said...

Dude, if I knew you were that brilliant a writer and orator and video producer and stuff in seminary...we would have had some awesome conversations. Keep up the good work bro.

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