Festival of Homiletics; Day 3

Post a Comment » Written on May 19th, 2010     
Filed under: homiletics
Today was another full day in Nashville.

During the morning worship time we received an incredibly funny and deeply moving sermon from Craig Barnes, entitled “Preaching to the Rabble”. In Numbers 11:4 we read of the rabble who never stopped complaining and continually brought the wrath of God upon the people. Dr. Barnes reflected on how we seem to encounter the rabble in every congregation we serve; those who continually complain and make our work so much more challenging.

God provided manna for the people, and the literal meaning of the word “manna” is, “What is it?” Every day they ate “What is it?” When the children looked at yet another meal in which mother had tried her best to work it into something tasty they probably stared at their plates and asked, “What is it?”; to which mother’s only reply was, “yes!”

But more significantly we are reminded that God’s people were nurtured with a question; “What is it?” We too need to start every day with a similar question; “What is it… that you are doing, Jesus?” That question will nurture us and get us through the day. Unfortunately the rabble didn’t like eating “What is it?” Their preferred questions always began with, “What if…”. What if we could go back to Egypt? What if we could get out of this wilderness? What if we could eat meat? The problem is that “What if…” questions only refer to the past or the future. But God’s gift of manna could only be found in the present; one day at a time.

When frustrated by the rabble who always want to ask “What if…” questions, it’s tempting for us pastors to think it is our job to get these people to the promised land. But it isn’t! Our job is to love them along the way, just like Moses continued to love the rabble and intercede on their behalf when God’s anger was kindled. But we are free… free to simply walk away from our vocation any time we want. Our daily manna is found in the daily renewed question, “What is it you are doing, Jesus?” We live out our vocation by making the choice to ask that question in complete freedom every day. Because in truth, the most dangerous rabble isn’t in our congregations; it’s in our own heart. So we make the choice, knowing that God will honor our choice, what ever it is.

Let us never forget that at the end of the story Moses was separated from the people who had so often frustrated and discouraged him when they entered the Promised Land. And in spite of how he had so many times wished to be freed of the burden of being their leader… in the end, being separated from them did not make him as happy as he had thought it would! Amen.

Dr. Barnes’ sermon was followed by a lecture from the delightfully quirky Lauren Winner in which we were poignantly reminded that the connection between our personal spirituality and good preaching isn’t just a one way road. Of course a robust spiritual life reinforces good preaching, but the inverse is also very true. Preaching and the preparation of sermons can and should be a richly nurturing experience for the preacher in many ways.

After a break Craig Barnes lectured from the story of the prodigal son, reflecting on the challenges of preaching to congregations that are made up primarily of “elder brother” figures; i.e. those who have never really left the fold and have lived good, faithful lives. Reflecting on his own pastoral experience he helped us wrestle with the question of how to preach to elder brothers.

While the default answer may be to simply remind them that they too are lost in sin, as we all are, this tends to make for sermons that are not all that engaging because for the most part they already know that. There is something core to American spirituality that craves for this kind of message. After all, why is “Amazing Grace” the most loved hymn of all time? There is a craving amongst American Christians for tent revival meetings and the sawdust trail. It is at the very heart of our corporate spirituality.

But there is another approach that Barnes calls the “sacramental approach”. One of the trademarks of elder brother types is intense anxiety and fear. Even though everything may be going well in their successful and cautiously planned lives, they seem to be tormented by the fear that it just might all collapse. In the early church the sacred act of baptism served to remind new believers that the old self was crucified with Christ and subsequently new life in Christ was received. This symbolic act freed them from the fear of living under great persecution as potential martyrs. How can you fear death if you have already died?

Elder brothers are confused by the message of grace, because somewhere inside they believe they deserve it. And yet Jesus was often harder on those of little faith than the ones with no faith at all. Elder brothers are anxious and fearful, but no one can ever be talked out of fear. Only love can set us free from fear. So the preacher must repeatedly encourage the elder brothers to¬†consciously¬†choose love over anxiety. We can’t really choose how our lives will turn out; we can’t achieve it. For life is made up of the grace that unfolds before us. No one deserves to be loved, but we can choose to accept Christ’s love.

Ultimately it is harder to repent of being good than to repent of being bad. And at the end of the story in Luke 15 we never really find out if the elder brother actually made it into the loving arms of his father. But what we do know is that the father invited him to come in and celebrate. It is up to the elder brother to complete the story.

After lunch we received a sermon from the previous lecturer, Lauren Winner based on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13. While this may be the most often recited passage in the entire bible, even to the point of being trite and tacky, we were encouraged to reclaim this powerful passage of scripture. In the first 12 chapters of this letter Paul deals with a huge variety of problems and conflicts within the church. But in the 13th chapter he returns to the very core, stressing that practicing love is more important than anything else in the church and in our lives.

Paul uses the word “love” to describe the conditions under which we flourish, and he does so with the strong desire for a specific outcome; that we be transformed. Ultimately, Paul speaks of love to describe the very being of Jesus. The sermon concluded with a powerful reading of the entire text, in which every instance of the word “love” was replaced with the name “Jesus”.

Our final learning moment for the day was a presentation by John McClure on parallels between the act of making music and that of making sermons. We were challenged to try some bold things in our sermon preparation. He spoke primarily in musical terms with lots of actual examples and focussed on the practice of doing covers, i.e. learning the licks of other great masters, the implementation of multiple voices to create harmony, and the practice of letting others create new mixes of your material. He will soon be releasing a new book that elucidates these concepts and shows how they can be applied to sermon crafting.

This evening we were treated to an incredible musical performance by guitar legend and virtuoso, Tommy Emmanuel. Words cannot describe what he does with his instrument! Listen for yourself and hear the wonder!

Stay tuned for day 4!

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