“How to Listen to a Sermon”
"If preachers decide to preach about hope, let them preach out of what they themselves hope for."
- Frederick Buechner
I have been preaching (almost!) weekly for more than thirty years and it has been the most rewarding (and demanding) part of pastoral ministry for me—as it is for most ministers. I have never lost sight of the privilege I have been given to “wrestle with the Word” during the week while others are off pursuing their vocations and careers—or doing the work they have to do to make ends meet.
However, preaching in 2019 is challenging—not just because of the polarized political situation in our country—but because people are generally less familiar (than in past generations) with biblical and theological language and concepts.
This is not because people are less faithful or uninterested in learning these things. It primarily has to do with the fact that a “Christian-ethos” no longer predominates within our larger culture—and this is not necessarily a bad thing (although some are quite alarmed by it!). The “conventional” white-Christian version of this widely shared “ethos” was used to promote a host of negative things: patriarchy, racism (white supremacy), and aggressive nationalism (of course, it is still being used for these things by some! See political polarization above!). [Note that these things are called “idolatry” in Reformed Theology].
But none of these things are rooted in the teachings of Jesus. In fact, Jesus (standing in the Jewish prophetic tradition) was against these things.
The “Jesus ethos” is actually rooted in a radical empathy and compassion for others.” He recognized that the only way to overcome the human penchant for tribalism—and the resulting (unending) conflict caused by tribalism—is a profound acceptance of others as they are (this is what loving ones neighbor means). As one of my clergy friends has put it, “The “Good News” isn’t “Good News” unless it’s “Good News” for everyone—no exceptions.”
The Jesus-ethos is also concerned with the whole person—body, mind, and spirit—not just the so-called “spiritual” aspects of life (whatever that means). This means that the Christian community (at its best) is always working to eliminate those things in our collective life together that diminish the fullness of life for others (discrimination in all forms, unequal educational opportunities, poverty, etc., for everyone—Christian and non-Christian alike).
The result is that the Christian faith is political—not in a red or blue sense—but in a common good sense. As we pray in the Lord’s Prayer each Sunday, “Give us this day our daily bread …” We pray that everyone will have “enough” to meet their needs, and our work is not finished until that is a reality for everyone. (This is what the Bible means when it speaks of justice).
So, my job is to (try to) preach in a way that elicits greater empathy and compassion in the minds and hearts of listeners, so as to encourage the living out of the Jesus ethos in church, community, and world.
My experience is that those who have suffered great loss, struggled with significant illness, experienced great love, and/or spend regular time listening for God’s voice (in Contemplative Prayer) intuitively understand the Jesus ethos. And what gives me hope—and what sustains me in ministry --is that there are always people (in every congregation) who want to live more deeply into this reality.
Sermons, then, should be viewed as the start (not the end) of an open-ended conversation (informed by Scripture, Theology, and Reason) about how we (as a community of faith) might better live into the Jesus ethos.
It is, of course, impossible to faithfully preach the Jesus ethos without challenging conventional wisdom and current cultural/political assumptions that are at odds with the Jesus ethos (the best preachers do this with gentleness and humility because we are also preaching to ourselves!).
Thus, the takeaway on those Sundays when a minister may say something you don’t agree with—or even may make you angry (we actually do not try to do this intentionally!)—is not to immediately assume that the clergy person does not know what they are talking about (he’s too liberal!; she’s too conservative!). Rather, to ask yourself: “What is he or she trying to get me to think about? And why am I reacting this way (hope, joy, peace, reassurance, contentment, agreement, disagreement, anger, discomfort, unease, doubt, fear, etc.). What can I learn about myself and others in this moment?
This is how we grow. This is how we become more like Jesus . If this happens for some—even in small ways, I have been a success.